Thursday, May 24, 2007


Delicate negotiations for U.S. forces to clear way into Sadr City

(The Washington Post) - The US military is engaged in delicate negotiations inside Sadr City to clear the way for a gradual push in coming weeks by more American and Iraqi forces into the volatile Shiite enclave of more than 2 million people, one of the most daunting challenges of the campaign to stabilise Baghdad.
So sensitive is the problem of the sprawling slum--heavily controlled by militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada Al Sadr - that Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, personally approves all targets for raids inside the Baghdad district, military officers said.
Lacking sufficient troops so far to move deeper into Sadr City, the military has cautiously edged into the southern part, conducting searches and patrols, handing out supplies and using offers of economic aid to try to overcome resistance. Meanwhile, US Special Operations forces and other US and Iraqi troops have detained militia leaders in an effort to weaken their organisation.
As additional US forces flow into Baghdad this month and next, the plan is to step up the presence of US and Iraqi troops in Sadr City, US commanders said in interviews over the past three weeks. "More US forces are needed in Sadr City to establish greater control, with Iraqi forces. We have to be matched," Col. Billy Don Farris, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade and senior US officer for the area.
Commanders say they intend to use political negotiations to gain peaceful entry into the district, bringing with them Iraqi forces and reconstruction projects. US officials hope "to take Sadr City without a shot fired," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, the senior US general overseeing Baghdad.
But negotiations have had setbacks, with key players shot or intimidated. Farris, the lead American officer in the talks, was evacuated from Iraq and is recovering after being shot in the leg May 3 in a different part of Baghdad, his spokesman said last week.
If political avenues are exhausted, the US military has formulated other options, including plans for a wholesale clearing operation in Sadr City that would require a much larger force, but commanders stress that this is a last resort.
"A second Fallujah plan exists, but we don't want to execute it," a military officer in Baghdad said, referring to the US military offensive in November 2004 to retake the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in Iraq's western Anbar province. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters.

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