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Sadr City is a dangerous world for U.S. troops

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the sprawling slum known as Sadr City, prominently displayed banners written in English taunt American soldiers. "Welcome," they declare, to a "second Vietnam."

Militiamen loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr regularly attack U.S. forces.

Bystanders are struck by stray bullets. Residents suspected of helping the Americans are murdered.

In the last month, seven Iraqis, including the chairman of Sadr City's version of a city council, were killed in separate incidents, an Iraqi police official said. In every case, their bodies were hung in public with attached signs accusing them of being American spies.

"There is no security here," lamented Mansour Ali, a 42-year-old tailor who runs a small shop. "When the Americans come, of course fighting will happen, and we close and go home."

The continuing violence underscores how daunting opposition to the American occupation is. U.S. military officials say U.S. troops are slowly winning against al-Sadr's forces in southern Iraq, driving them from places such as Karbala and challenging them in Najaf and Kufa.

But in Sadr City, al-Sadr's Mahdi Army remains firmly in control, despite efforts by the U.S. Army to negotiate a cease-fire with tribal sheiks and a recent weapons buyback program that cost the U.S. Army $1.3 million.

Home to a third of Baghdad's population of 5 million, Sadr City is a cauldron of misery that's a breeding ground for the insurgency.

Crushing poverty and joblessness grip the largely Shiite section of eastern Baghdad. Young, out-of-work men are heeding the call to take up arms against the Americans.

Some experts say the anti-American resistance in Sadr City is a more overtly hostile expression of what many Iraqis feel privately: a growing resentment over the U.S.-led occupation.

Others say the resistance is more narrowly connected to al-Sadr: The neighborhood is named for his father, a revered cleric killed by Saddam Hussein.

While al-Sadr doesn't have the status his father did, he's cultivated the poor and drew from them militiamen for his Mahdi Army. Many of the fighters battling U.S. forces around cities such as Najaf are thought to be from Sadr City.

The U.S. military has tried for weeks to regain control of Sadr City. U.S. forces first proposed a cease-fire to tribal leaders who could act as intermediaries with the militia.

"They had come to an agreement that the coalition forces would reduce their presence inside Sadr City as long as they saw a reduction in the attacks against Iraqi police stations, a reduction in violence," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.

It worked for a few days. But the fighting resumed this past weekend, with reports of at least two dozen Iraqi fighters killed. The militiamen have resumed roaming the streets at night with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and setting up checkpoints to intimidate coalition sympathizers.

On Sunday, the roar of explosions and the crackle of gunfire echoed through Sadr City.

Noticeably absent from the streets were the Iraqi police. At noon, about 30 militiamen attacked a police station. U.S. forces responded and were able to repel the attackers. There were no reports of American or Iraqi police casualties.

"We are about 500 policemen in Sadr City, and that's not enough," complained the police chief of Sadr City, Col. Maruf al Lami.

Ismail Ibrahim, 35, who runs a small bootleg CD and DVD shop, sympathized with the Iraqi police. "What can they do?" he asked. If the police go out, he said, "they will be killed."

Trying to reassert control of the streets, U.S. forces blew apart al-Sadr's local office on May 10. But within days, residents erected new walls and covered them with a fresh coat of white paint. This week, al-Sadr supporters mingled outside but declined to speak to a reporter.

At the U.S.-supported office of the District Advisory Council, which is guarded by two Bradley Fighting Vehicles and surrounded by razor wire, residents pursue compensation claims for damages as a result of U.S. actions.

In a back room on Sunday, Mohammed Naj, 23, helped to process the claims. He showed a visitor a list of what had been paid recently: $300 for broken car windows; $1,000 for bullet holes in a car. The largest amount was $6,500 for a car that was shot and caught fire.

Outside in the lobby, Jafar Arnos, 40, was waiting to seek compensation for the death of his 4-year-old daughter, Zahraa, who was shot in the neck as she sat in the back seat of her father's taxi on April 5 as they were driving home from a funeral.

Arnos hobbled around the waiting room on crutches, his left leg bandaged from what he said was a bullet wound from the same shooting, which he blamed on a U.S. soldier. He said he hasn't been able to work since the injury.

"I have a family to support," Arnos said. "I'm hoping they will pay me."

Ali Ismail, 32, came seeking help for his 62-year-old father, who was shot on April 4. He believes his father, who remains in a hospital, was hit by stray U.S. gunfire.

"I have nothing against them," he said of the Americans, "but I hope they leave so we can go on with our lives."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SADRCITY

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