At Baghdad’s Ground Zero

Iraqi children walk past the bullet-riddled windshield of a vehicle after a gun battle in Baghdad’s Sadr City, August 2006.

If you want to know whether a surge of U.S. troops in Baghdad will make a difference, listen to Iraqis like taxi driver Ali Mansoor, 38. Last fall Mansoor’s neighborhood in central Baghdad, a mixed Shi’ite-Sunni area known as al-Sadoon, became a sectarian killing zone. The streets around his house were the scene of scores of murders and abductions every day. And then, for one week last October, the violence stopped. “There was a big change in the security situation. Everybody noticed,” says Mansoor, who asked not to be identified by his real name. “In my area, there was not a single kidnapping or killing.”

So what happened? For the first time since the war began, U.S. forces had locked down the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, haven to the militias and death squads loyal to rebel Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Looking for a missing U.S. soldier, the Americans cordoned off much of Sadr City, preventing hundreds of killers from slipping out. On Oct. 24, the daily murder rate fell roughly 50%. It stayed down for more than a week, until Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded that the U.S. end the blockade around Sadr City. After the U.S. pulled out, the body count in Baghdad returned to its previous levels, and life for Iraqis like Mansoor became hell again. “I think most of the bad guys came from Sadr City,” says Mansoor. “The Americans should attack that place today, not tomorrow.”

By every indication, the Bush Administration is gearing up for a last, desperate push to pacify Baghdad. The U.S. plan calls for increasing by 21,500 the number of U.S. troops in Iraq in the months ahead, with 17,500 of them deployed to Baghdad, the bleeding heart of the country’s civil war. In his Jan. 10 speech announcing the surge, President Bush said U.S. troops would have “a green light” to go into the lairs of powerful Shi’ite militias like al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which until now have been left largely untouched by them. That hands-off policy has turned Sadr City into Baghdad’s ground zero: a bristling hothouse of sectarian hatred that exists outside the control of U.S. and Iraqi authorities. The success or failure of the surge may hinge on whether the U.S. can take Sadr City back.

The challenge is enormous. By some estimates, half the daily sectarian attacks in Baghdad flow out of Sadr City. Home to more than 2 million people, the area is a world unto itself. From the air, the perfect street grid makes it seem like a pocket of civic order. But a glance down any street reveals the place for what it is, one of the world’s biggest and poorest slums. Clouds of flies roll over roads and alleyways covered in the stench of rotting garbage and open sewers. Houses are so close together in some areas that Mahdi Army fighters say they can jump from roof to roof for miles, keeping watch on streets below.

Al-Sadr seldom appears in Sadr City. He normally resides in the southern Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, where U.S. forces battled the Mahdi Army in 2004. U.S. troops stage occasional raids in the sector against Mahdi Army operatives, which the Pentagon now considers a greater threat to security than al-Qaeda. But al-Maliki has consistently stopped American forces from waging an all-out assault on the Mahdi Army or its leadership out of fear of alienating his political base. “The Iraqi leadership has prevented us from targeting some leaders,” says a senior military official. “Our understanding is that [such restraints] are now over.” In a Jan. 17 meeting with reporters from five news organizations, including TIME, al-Maliki said the new security plan “will not spare anyone who breaks the law, regardless of any militias that he belongs to.”

Still, Administration officials won’t say whether they intend to take on the Mahdi Army immediately. Retired four-star Army General Jack Keane, who has been advising the White House, says the U.S. plans to focus first on stabilizing mixed Sunni-Shi’ite neighborhoods, which, in theory, would bolster confidence in both communities and give al-Maliki the political space to take on al-Sadr’s militias on his own. “After a number of weeks, Maliki will get the leverage … to persuade the Shi’a militia leaders to get off the offensive,” Keane says.

The U.S. wants that effort to be led by Iraqi troops. But much of the Iraqi army in the capital is ill equipped and undisciplined, and many Iraqi army units hardly hide their sectarianism. That means the task of pacifying Sadr City may fall to U.S. troops. Under the Army’s Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain (MOUT) doctrine, squads of troops would cordon off blocks of Baghdad and warily permeate them, shooting anyone who threatened them. Once a block had been sealed and secured, a protective force would remain there while troops moved on to the next one.

The fighting would be bloody. Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, estimates that the battle for Sadr City would be “Mogadishu times 10”–referring to the failed U.S. effort in the early 1990s to rescue Somalia from anarchy and famine that saw 43 Americans killed. But Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and military scholar, says taking back Sadr City, while producing potentially substantial losses in the short run, is crucial if the U.S. hopes to curb al-Sadr’s strength. “The best way to deal with Sadr City is to just do it–take everything you’ve got and clean it out,” Peters says. “Dithering won’t help.”

The worst-case scenario would be a dragged-out battle that produced high civilian casualties and ignited anti-U.S. anger among Shi’ite masses–just as the battle of Fallujah did among Sunnis in 2004. Sadr’s forces could also melt away and bet that the U.S. will pull back again. It’s not a bad gamble: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says the surge isn’t likely to last past August, in part because of waning public support for the war. On a just-completed trip to Baghdad, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh told al-Maliki that Americans won’t tolerate seeing U.S. lives wasted. “I don’t want your soldiers to die either,” al-Maliki said. “Give us the weapons, and let us do what we need to do.” For better or worse, he may eventually get his wish.

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