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Sadr City, Iraq

by Geraldo Rivera | Dec 01, 2007

The worst neighborhood in Baghdad remains Sadr City where on a single day in October there were nine separate bombings. Now, here as elsewhere in this slowly recovering capital, our GI’s have learned to fight with concrete, lining the roads with the massive barriers to prevent snipers and I.E.D. attacks, those wicked booby traps that have been the cause of most of our casualties.

This hotbed of radical Shiites is still a nest of vipers, where rogue elements within the community have so far refused to go along with the ceasefire declared by their own religious leaders.

With a teeming, dense and largely impoverished population of at least 2.3 million of Baghdad’s seven million residents our basic military strategy has been to isolate what is still the dark heart of the Shiite resistance. But even here, our forces have begun the process of gradual engagement that is working so well elsewhere in this sprawling capital city.

Walking and riding through the narrow streets with Lt. Col. Dan Barnett of the 1st Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, I could see grudging improvement in the form of cleaner streets, open restaurants and markets. You still get some hard stares, but one trooper, Captain Augusto Giacoman surprised a group of young men when he walked up and started exchanging pleasantries in Arabic, which the aspiring journalist learned at West Point. The local guys were so impressed they bought us a cup of the sweet tea so favored in these parts.

The officer in charge of war fighting around here is Brigadier General John F. Campbell. One of the most formidable warriors the modern army has ever seen, this cross between a Spartan and a line backer has also had to become part diplomat, engaging the local power structure and trying to drive a wedge between the radicals, and the regular people who just want to get on with their lives after almost five continuous years of often barbaric religious warfare. Still with the top seven high value targets believed hiding within the crowded labyrinth of Sadr City, General Campbell understands that it is the last piece of Baghdad’s security puzzle. The general, who I met when he was a colonel commanding a brigade of the legendary 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan in 2003 is now our Deputy Commanding General for Maneuver, but aside from war fighter, he is also our chief cop, mediator, and sectarian peacekeeper .

Taking off in a pair of Blackhawk helicopters from the new Combat Operating Post the general's established within Sadr City, we flew past COP Callahan where we did a live show back in February 2007 when the surge was just beginning. As we flew low over the battered high rise structure, he explained soberly that the outpost had recently been struck multiple times in a salvo of improvised rockets that destroyed a bunch of vehicles, but luckily didn’t kill any soldiers. Yet the attack was a grim reminder that even with the surge, Sadr City remains a very dangerous place.

It was a happier scene out in Taji in western Baghdad, where the 1-7 Cavalry holds sway. There the direct military descendents of General Custer’s 7th Cavalry still keep the “Garry Owen” theme that the flamboyant Civil War leader and Indian fighter used once too often as his battle song. But Taji isn’t the Little Big Horn. In this mixed Shiite/Sunni neighborhood where savage sectarian violence made the land along the Grand Canal of the Tigris River run red with the blood of men, women and children, the religious and tribal leaders have forged a seemingly impressive peace pact that has brought calm to the region. General Campbell and I walked the neighborhood with Staff General Jamal Ahmed of the Iraqi Army, alongside Sheik Nadeem the Shia leader and Sheik Naji the local Sunni chief.

Here, in what was one of the principal killing grounds for Al Queda in Iraq, as well as their main infiltration route from the north into Baghdad, the VIP’s and I met families from which two or three children had been kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the terrorists, their bodies then dumped in the canal to surface downstream in Baghdad proper. It was fitting and just a little weird to enjoy a sumptuous feast of lamb, chicken, turkey and other delicious delicacies in this mixed crowd, which until a June Reconciliation pow wow was at each other’s throats, and right on the banks of the canal where the bad guys dumped the corpses of their battered and butchered victims.

We walked the bridge over the canal where two years ago a busload of 63 Shiite police recruits were all massacred, and where until that June agreement, assassination was a daily occurrence.

I asked Lt. Col. Kevin MacWatters, the affable, competent and straight-shooting Squadron Commander of the 1-7 Cav whether it was us who brought this disparate group together, he told me that yes, we facilitated it by making life miserable for the bad guys, but that the locals also just got sick of the slaughter. “The turning point was when Al Queda started killing the children.”

As General Campbell worked the crowd, meeting and greeting locals who have become friends, my only fear was thinking about the future when the Americans have gone home and these folks whose heads are filled with so many bitter, recent memories are left to focus on the future.   

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