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Al-Sadr militia prep for new U.S., Iraqi offensive

Sharon Behn

April 5, 2008

Militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are positioning explosives to defend the major routes into Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood in anticipation of a major battle with U.S. and Iraqi government forces, residents said yesterday.

Iraqis also said families in Sadr City and other Shi'ite areas of Baghdad are stocking up on food, fearing new fighting that will leave them unable to get to the markets.

While food prices in most of Baghdad are stable, they have increased in Sadr City and surrounding neighborhoods as people brace for a resumption of fighting that rocked the neighborhood late last month, said Sajad, an Iraqi translator who spoke with several residents in the Shi'ite stronghold on behalf of The Washington Times.

Tomatoes that were 30 cents to 40 cents a kilogram (2.2 pounds) are now $2.50 a kilo, and the price of eggs and cheese have gone up three to five times their normal price, said Sajad.

In a southwest neighborhood of Baghdad, where Shi'ite militiamen have recently been pushed out, neighbors warned Ahmed, the father of three young children in the area, that there could be another rebel Shi'ite uprising as soon as tomorrow two days before Gen. David H. Petreaus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to report to Congress on progress in the U.S. troop surge.

The warning, Ahmed said, appeared to come from Sadr City, so it would only affect Baghdad. Orders to Shi'ite militia across the country normally are issued from Najaf, a holy city in southern Iraq where Sheik al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is headquartered.

In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials said they had no way of confirming Mahdi Army preparations for the Sadr City battle, but added that it is "entirely possible."

One official said the Mahdi Army is likely to try to reignite violence. "It's obviously a fluid situation."

In the U.S.-protected International Zone in central Baghdad, private contractors were "hardening" their rooms to avoid getting killed or injured in the event of another rocket and mortar barrage, similar to the one that followed the government push against Sheik al-Sadr's militia last week in southern Iraq.

"I've moved my desk so that I won't be in the line of shrapnel," said Jack, a 32-year-old American working for a U.S. company who has spent 16 months in Iraq.

"I'm wearing my Kevlar a lot," he added, referring to his body armor. Jack, like others quoted in this story, asked that family names not be used.

The unease in Baghdad comes amid calls by Sheik al-Sadr for a massive anti-American rally Wednesday to mark the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.

"The time has come to express your rejections and raise your voices loud against the unjust occupier and enemy of nations and humanity, and against the horrible massacres committed by the occupier against our honorable people," said a statement released by Sheik-al Sadr's office.

The statement called on all Iraqis to head toward Najaf, the site of large Shi'ite pilgrimages.

Shi'ite areas have been told to close their stores to commemorate the day, said Ahmed. The last time stores were ordered closed was when the battles between Iraqi troops and Shi'ite militias erupted last week in the southern city of Basra.

"All Shi'ite neighbors, they tell me maybe Sunday we have second attacks ... they will come back and attack the government," said Ahmed.

It was not possible to confirm the threats, but the reports were fueling unease in the capital, which only recently had begun to feel a modicum of security after months of concentrated military operations by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a Shi'ite once allied with Sheikh al-Sadr had warned the crackdown against the Shi'ite militias would continue despite the truce ordered by the anti-American cleric.

Yesterday, however, Mr. al-Maliki backed off the threat, saying the arrests of Shi'ite suspects would be suspended.

But Sadr City residents are nervous, said Ahmed, and the militias are preparing for another showdown with U.S. and coalition forces.

"When they see American convoys, they quickly put IEDs in the street and everywhere they will attack Americans," he said, referring to bombs planted in roads.

Hassan, a Shi'ite doctor who lives in a different neighborhood and does not support the Mahdi Army militia, said he also expects the fighting to flare up again and that the streets of Sadr City are booby-trapped.

"This is the quiet before the storm," he said. "But I am sure that if anyone, government or coalition attack Sadr City it will be a big loss, because all the roads of Sadr City are filled with explosives."

Iraqi reactions to the fighting in Basra and Baghdad varied. Some praised the prime minister for taking on the Mahdi militia, others said Muqtada's ability to turn the violence on and off only strengthened his hand, and that of his backer, Iran.

While Iraqi government forces struck hard, they ended up by having to call on U.S. air support after being overwhelmed by the Shi'ite militia response.

Hundreds of police many of whom were Sheik al-Sadr supporters reportedly laid down their weapons and joined the militia in both Basra and Sadr City.

"In some areas around Sadr City, the militia are part of the police," said Ahmed.

In other areas, police responded differently he said. Some "left their post to return to their unit, some continued to attack militia."

Sara A. Carter contributed to this article.



:: Article nr. 42764 sent on 05-apr-2008 09:44 ECT

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