World and Nation

New Fight for Sadr City Becomes Proving Ground for Iraqi Military

The Iraqi soldiers pushed their way up a main thoroughfare in Sadr City over the past week, but the militias who still prowl the Shiite enclave were sniping at them from the alleyways.

So a platoon of U.S. troops drove up a bomb-cratered road in their Stryker vehicles on Thursday to give the Iraqis some pointers on how to hold the line.

After the ramps of the Strykers were lowered, 2nd Lt. Adam Bowen sought out his Iraqi counterpart at the battered storefront in the Thawra district that served as an Iraqi strong point.

“Are you going to stay?” the Iraqi lieutenant asked hopefully.

Bowen told them his platoon was not. Surveying the terrain, he recommended that the Iraqi soldiers set up a firing position overlooking a sniper-infested ally. After an hour, the Americans headed back to the abandoned house that served as the company command post, and the gunfire in the streets picked up again.

The struggle for control of Sadr City is more than a test of wills with renegade Shiite militias. It has also become a testing ground for the Iraqi military, which has been thrust into the lead.

Iraqi soldiers, suffering from a shortage of experienced noncommissioned officers, have often been firing wildly, expending vast quantities of ammunition to try to silence militias that are equipped with AK-47’s, mortars and rockets. But pulling back from their positions earlier, they now appear to be holding their ground — albeit with considerable U.S. support.

Iraqi politics has played a role in shaping the military strategy. Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki has decreed that U.S. ground forces should not push into the heart of Sadr City, according to a senior U.S. officer. U.S. commanders also want to limit the U.S. profile in an area that has long been a bastion of support for Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric.

But U.S. commanders also see this as opportunity to shift more responsibility to the Iraqi troops — in this case Iraq’s 11th Army Division, one of the newest divisions in the Iraqi military.

Whether they like it or not, Iraqi troops are hundreds of yards ahead of the farthest U.S. position and in the thick of the fight.

“The IA needs to start doing it on their own,” Bowen, the 23-year-old commander of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, told a reporter who accompanied him on the mission, referring to the Iraqi army.

The Iraqi troops, of course, still benefit mightily from U.S. military support. On Thursday morning, Apache helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at teams of militia fighters that were preparing to fire mortars.

Heavily armored U.S. “route clearance” vehicles, their searchlights blazing in the night, sweep the roads for hidden bombs. A U.S. reconnaissance drone buzzed overhead and an armed Predator drone blasted a small group of militia men a few days ago.

In an urban battlefield in which there are often no clear lines and militias still roam the narrow side streets, U.S. soldiers are very much at risk and in the fray.