Iraqis begin to 'despise' the Mahdi Army in Baghdad's Rusafa district
By Bill ArdolinoMay 3, 2008 11:57 AM

BAGHDAD, IRAQ: The nighttime walk through a difficult neighborhood in southern Rusafa was uneventful; a careful “presence patrol” designed to show local citizens American forces and gauge public opinion. The jumbled maze of brightly lit ramshackle shops and pitch-black back alleys is one of the less secure parts of the district.

The few blocks in Southern Rusafa are “a neighborhood with the most potential to become violent because of the JAM [Mahdi Army] Special Groups networks that are known to operate in that area,” according to Lieutenant Mike Hebert, the patrol’s leader. No one challenged the platoon, and the expressions of Iraqi civilians were studiously neutral. But the Mahdi Army presence was apparent in the nervous energy of shopkeepers who hesitantly spoke with the Americans, a fear that increased when directly asked about the Shia militia.

Rusafa is a large district in central Baghdad bordered by the Tigris River to the southwest and Sadr City to the northeast. The district is predominantly Shia, but contains significant Sunni enclaves and a small Christian population, with a surprising number of openly practicing churches, according to Colonel Craig Collier, the commander of the 3rd Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. The 450 soldiers of the 3-89 Cav are responsible for the district’s security, in conjunction with thousands of Iraqi Army, Iraqi National Police, Iraqi Police, Kurdish private contractors, and Sons of Iraq (neighborhood watch).

Rusafa contains Baghdad’s largest and most famous markets, including the Shorja, Saria, and Bab al Sharji, some of which were the scenes of high-profile suicide bombings during the sectarian-fueled carnage of 2006-2007. Over the past year, and especially over the past six months, the district has calmed significantly. The predominant remaining threats are Mahdi Army mortar rounds aimed at the International Zone that fall short and suicide vest bombers and car bombs that target the markets and Coalition forces. Less successful suicide attacks occur maybe once a month, while once common highly successful “spectacular attacks” have become much less frequent.

The Iraqi security forces show improvement in Rusafa

Soldiers in the 3-89 Cav attribute improved security to a few main factors. As is the case with Iraqi security forces across the country, leadership is everything. Collier believes that changes in leadership of the Iraqi National Police and Iraqi Army have improved the performance of the Iraqi security forces.

“We have now taken over an area, and because the first of the Surge units left, it’s twice the size it was before, and I have less than half the people, and it’s still working, so far,” said Collier. “And that is in good measure because of the quality of Iraqi security forces. I was here two years ago and I’ve seen a noticeable improvement, and it’s really the hope that this country has, that they’re able to do things on their own. And they are -- they’re doing quite a bit on their own.”

Collier said that there remains variation in operational quality among units, but notes that many are performing well. He also states that logistics remain “the biggest weak point” with the Iraqi security forces, but asserts gradual improvement.

“The Iraqi Army battalion 3/4/1 [3rd Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Division], which just transitioned here from Fallujah, is one of the most professional battalions I’ve seen,” said Captain John Thornburg, commander of the 3-89’s Bravo Troop, who is responsible for a Joint Security Station (JSS) in southern Rusafa. “They uphold the [operational and uniform] standard on checkpoints, they’re battle-hardened professionals, and are the future of the Iraqi Army that we’d like to see. They’re proud, professional-looking soldiers, and the people see the difference.”

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