Has Maliki Conquered Sadr City?

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Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty

An Iraqi soldier stands guard at a checkpoint in Sadr City, on May 20.

Sa'ad Mutlieck was one resident of Sadr City heartened to see armored columns of Iraqi Army forces rolling deep into his neighborhood on Tuesday. "We hope the government is serious about ending all the armed groups so life could be back to normal," said Mutlieck. "The situation is very, very bad."

Residents of the impoverished and enormous Shi'ite warren in east Baghdad have been under siege since April, when Iraqi security forces backed by American troops began clashing in the area with fighters from the Mahdi Army militia led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. For weeks gun battles and air strikes came almost every day in Sadr City as soldiers and militiamen faced off in a stalemated battle at the edge of the district, which is the Mahdi Army's stronghold. A hastily arranged truce between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Sadr halted the fighting last week. Under the agreement, Iraqi forces are now allowed to enter Sadr City to pursue any so-called rogue militia cells not following the cease-fire and to conduct searches for heavy weapons like the mortars and rockets routinely flung from Sadr City toward the Green Zone.

The arrangement effectively gives Iraqi security forces their first real presence in Sadr City since the fall of Saddam Hussein and marks a victory in Maliki's ongoing efforts to face down the militias and insurgents opposed to his government. Iraqi forces plan to remain in Sadr City and have begun setting up a series of checkpoints across the district, much as they have in other areas of Baghdad. For his part, Sadr seems to have gained little in the near term with the pact beyond sparing Sadr City and his militia forces a long and destructive battle. But Mahdi Army fighters have retained much of their muscle nonetheless, since Sadr insisted that his militia still be allowed to hold light weapons such as Kalashnikovs. And already there are signs suggesting that the Mahdi Army is moving at least some of its heavy weapons to other locations in Baghdad for use if the agreement breaks down.

Some of the Iraqi forces that swept into Sadr City over the last 24 hours might have expected hostility from the residents of the area, where the Mahdi Army and the broader Sadrist movement has effectively served as the only authority and provider of services for the last five years. But at least some Sadr City residents, like Mutlieck, were glad to see actual government forces on the streets rather than militiamen who some say operate like mafia racketeers.

Water and electricity have long been scarce in Sadr City, which was one of the poorest areas of Baghdad even before the most recent fighting worsened the humanitarian situation there. Some residents have complained that the Mahdi Army's grip on Sadr City, where U.S. and Iraqi forces previously did not go, has left them struggling to get what little of the basic services are available in the area. "You can't just blame the government for the shortages of services," said Haithem Hamid, another Sadr City resident. "Most of the blame goes to the Mahdi Army, which controls the economy and the social services, even fuel and local contracts. Anyone who defies these people will be harassed."

The new government stance in Sadr City, some hope, will break the militia's hold on the local economy and spur badly needed reconstruction and development in the area. But any reconstruction effort will be a massive undertaking. Iraqi army forces viewed scenes of widespread destruction as they entered Sadr City. Roughly 10,000 Iraqi troops moved through block after block of burnt and shattered buildings. Iraqi army Humvees slogged through pools of standing water that could come to pose a serious health threat in the densely packed urban area as well.

Unseen Tuesday on the streets of Sadr City were the fighters from the Mahdi Army, who faded from view under Sadr's orders. Sheik Salman al-Freiji, director of the Sadr Movement, said the Mahdi Army plans to honor the cease-fire, though signs of tensions are already emerging. Iraqi forces came in much greater numbers than Mahdi Army leaders expected, al-Freiji said, leaving the militia wary of the Iraqi army's next move. A key test of whether the truce will hold is likely to happen in the coming days as Iraqi forces begin to move from the streets into buildings around Sadr City to search for the militia's heavy weapons. It remains unclear just how willing the Mahdi Army is to give up its arsenal of rockets and mortars. And animosities linger between Iraqi troops and militiamen. The fighting between the two sides in recent weeks was bloody and bitter. Al-Freiji at least is worried that the Iraqi army troops might lash out at either residents or elements of the Mahdi Army in the uncertain weeks ahead. Said Freiji: "We have noticed the Iraqi army has some new tendencies toward revenge."