BAGHDAD, Iraq—A weapons-buyback program has been successful enough in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City that workers will begin collecting garbage Saturday and undertaking other public projects in the sprawling Shiite Muslim slum, officials said Friday.
It will be the first time such work has been done in Sadr City's northern two-thirds since Aug. 5, when rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia engaged in fierce fighting with U.S. troops. The fighting ended Oct. 11 when American forces and al-Sadr agreed to the buyback program.
On the agenda: cleaning raw sewage from the streets, fixing broken water pipes, repairing downed power lines and hauling away heaps of trash. About 130,000 workers will be employed in the effort.
The resumption of reconstruction work is a major victory for U.S. officials, who long have argued that improving basic services would provide jobs and tamp down discontent in an area where unemployment is estimated at 80 percent. More than 2 million people live in Sadr City.
"There are so many people who want reconstruction to start. They would like to see hospitals. They want to see their street clean. Who likes instability?" said Leila Abdul-Latif, the minister of labor and social affairs, whose ministry is in charge of reconstruction projects.
American military officials said violence had slackened noticeably throughout Sadr City since the peace agreement. "Part of Sadr City realized what they were missing," said Lt. Col. David Seigel, of the 1st Cavalry Division, which patrols Sadr City.
But the military is aware that al-Sadr suggested last week that his Mahdi Army militia could rise again if U.S.-led troops attack insurgents in Fallujah, a largely Sunni Muslim city to Baghdad's west. An al-Sadr aide said he meant only to provide moral support, but some in the Mahdi Army may interpret the comment as a call to arms.
"It's something we are aware of and looking out for," Seigel said.
American military officials acknowledged that the buyback program hadn't eliminated the possibility of violence. They said thousands of weapons were still uncollected and that they worried that some militia members might use the money they got for their old weapons to buy newer, better ones.
"Right now, it seems to be going in the right direction," said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "We hope it will remain this way."
Signs of reconstruction sprang up Friday as workers painted the curbs of some streets while others shoveled heaps of trash. Many covered their faces with handkerchiefs, revealing only their eyes, so their neighbors wouldn't know they were working on an American-backed effort.
The Iraqi government has allotted $361 million for projects in Sadr City, from Iraqi government funds and international grants, Abdul-Latif said.
Abdul-Latif said several ministries gathered to decide how to allocate the money and to monitor the reconstruction efforts, including the Education, Health, Housing, Electricity and Finance ministries and representatives from Baghdad's municipal government.
The money can pay for projects through 2005.
The weapons-buyback program ran Oct. 13-22. U.S. and Iraqi officials extended it twice after a slow start. Iraqi officials said they paid out about $4.5 million for 18,000 weapons, including 9,000 anti-tank mines, 2,000 land mines, 1,500 mortar shells and 2,000 Kalashnikov rifles.
Most residents were pleased that reconstruction projects were about to begin and welcomed an end to the fighting. Said Abu Ali al-Baghdadee, 36: "The security situation is stable. You cannot find weapons in the streets. We are serious about making Sadr City a stable city."
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Omar Jassim contributed to this article.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.