Strike forces US to end Sadr City siege

November 5, 2006

In the face of a general strike called by Shiite militants in Baghdad's northeastern Sadr City district, home to 2.5 million people, US troops ended their week-long siege of the district on October 31.

The US military imposed the siege on Sadr City following the abduction of a US military translator while he was making a private visit to relatives in the Karrada neighbourhood of central Baghdad on October 22.

Sadr City is a stronghold of the political movement led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, an outspoken opponent of the US occupation of Iraq, and his Mahdi Army militia.

The October 31 Los Angeles Times reported the US military had said it had ended its near-blockade of Sadr City after receiving an order earlier that day from Iraqi PM Nuri al Maliki. "Maliki's order to take down the roadblocks", the LA Times report observed, "could help boost his political standing among Iraqis who have grown disappointed in his leadership and irritated over what they view as American meddling".

The article also reported that a day earlier Sadr's followers had called on all Sadr City residents to stay home in protest at the US-imposed siege. It also reported that Sadr himself had warned that his supporters would take unspecified stronger actions unless the roadblocks were lifted.

Associated Press reported that "Sadr City's store owners and schools heeded a call from al-Sadr and closed Tuesday as part of a protest strike. The strike call, announced on loudspeakers at mosques across Sadr City, also was observed elsewhere in Baghdad ...

"Ahmed Jassim Mohammed, a 35-year-old textile merchant in Shurja market, Baghdad's biggest and oldest, left his store shuttered Tuesday and returned home when he heard of the strike call. 'In solidarity with our people in Sadr City, 80% of Shurja market is closed today', he said."

"If they had not lifted the siege, our strike would have spread to the rest of Baghdad tomorrow and the whole of Iraq the next day", senior Sadr aide Jalil Nouri told AP.

In 2004, the US occupation forces attempted to "capture or kill" Sadr but were fought to a stalemate by his fighters in Sadr City and in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, in south-central Iraq.

Following the unexpectedly strong showing for Sadr's movement in January's parliamentary elections — in which candidates aligned with Sadr emerged as a key group within the Iraqi legislature — Washington launched a propaganda campaign to prepare the ground for a new assault on the Sadr movement.

This propaganda drive, initiated in February by US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and parroted by much of the Western corporate media, claims that Sadr's militia is the spawning ground of anti-Sunni death squads that have pushed Iraq into a "sectarian civil war".

However, as the October 29 British Independent observed, "the death squads are the result of US policy. At the beginning of last year, with no end to the Sunni insurgency in sight, the Pentagon was reported to have decided to train Shia and Kurdish fighters to carry out 'irregular missions'.

"The policy, exposed in the US media, was called the 'Salvador Option' after the American-backed counterinsurgency in Latin America more than 20 years ago, which led to 70,000 deaths and countless instances of human rights abuse.

"Some of the most persistent allegations of abuse have been made against the [interior ministry's] Wolf Brigade, many of whom were formerly in Saddam's Baathist forces."

The Wolf Brigade, which formed in October 2004, was trained by James Steele, a former US Army special forces operative who directed the US military mission in El Salvador at the height of that country's civil war.

The May 1, 2005 New York Times reported that the "template" for the US war in Iraq "is not Vietnam, with which it has often been compared, but El Salvador ... It is no coincidence that this new strategy is most visible in a paramilitary unit that has Steele as its main adviser; having been a central participant in the Salvador conflict. Steele knows how to organize a counterinsurgency campaign that is led by local forces."

While the interior ministry's US-trained and "adviser"-directed death squads have been "effective" in abducting, torturing and murdering thousands of unarmed Iraqi civilians each month this year, they have proven to be a dismal failure in combatting armed and well-organised groups such as the Sunni-based guerrilla units or Sadr's Mahdi militia.

Last month, for example, the Mahdi militia took control of the southeastern Iraqi city of Amarah following the forced withdrawal in August of 1800 British occupation troops. The October 21 British Guardian reported: "Yesterday morning the militia loyal to the Baghdad-based cleric Moqtada al Sadr demonstrated that fact — and the acute dilemma facing British and American military planners — in the most dramatic fashion.

"Residents described how fighters stormed three police stations in this city of 900,000 and blew them up. Around 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades patrolled the streets in commandeered police vehicles as others set up roadblocks on routes into the town ...

"Tensions had been rising since five men, including the brother of a local Mahdi militia leader, were allegedly abducted — some say arrested — by police on suspicion of involvement in the killing of a senior police intelligence officer, Qassim al Tamimi, who was also a member of the rival Badr brigade."

The Badr Organisation is the militia aligned with the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest of the Islamist parties supporting Maliki's US-backed government.

"The Badr Brigades", Associated Press observed on October 29, "is seldom mentioned when the United States calls for Maliki to disband armed groups, perhaps because the Americans still see the militia's political leadership as a center of power that can be swayed to US policy goals."

The failure of Washington's "Salvador Option" to weaken either the Sunni-based resistance or the strength of Sadr's Shiite-based movement has led the Pentagon to turn back to greater reliance on its own troops.

The number of US troops in Iraq has been boosted from 127,000 in mid-July to 150,000 at the end of October through prolonging many units' tours of duty beyond their usual 12-month limit. The 19% increase brings the US occupation force to within 10,000 troops of its December 2005 all-time high.

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