paradigm shift or proving ground?

Joao Silva for The New York Times

An Iraqi soldier, left, with an American soldier in Sadr City. More Photos »

Published: April 11, 2008, by Michael R. Gordon
BAGHDAD — The Iraqi soldiers pushed their way up a main thoroughfare in Sadr City over the past week, but the militias that still prowl the Shiite enclave were sniping at them from the alleyways.

So a platoon of American 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, Second Lt. Adam Bowen sought out his Iraqi counterpart at the battered storefront in the Thawra district that served as an Iraqi strongpoint.

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

Lieutenant 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 alley. 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 American support.

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

But American commanders also see this as an 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 American position and in the thick of the fight.

“The I.A. needs to start doing it on their own,” Lieutenant Bowen, the 23-year-old commander of Third 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 American military support. On Thursday morning, Apache helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at teams of militia fighters that were preparing to fire mortars.

Heavily armored American “route clearance” vehicles, their searchlights blazing in the night, swept the roads for hidden bombs. An American 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, American soldiers are very much at risk and in the fray.

On Wednesday at dusk, Lt. Marc Dudek, the leader of Second Platoon, which was defending the forward line of the American forces here, led his soldiers into the street after a rocket-propelled grenade flew past the abandoned house where his troops had pitched camp.

As the soldiers returned to their house after a fruitless search, the civilians ominously vanished from a side street. The platoon took fire from a nearby building moments later and responded with an ear-shattering barrage. That quieted the militias for a while. By nightfall, the shooting started again.

The Thursday mission by Lieutenant Bowen was to check on the Iraqi forces who were defending an intersection 300 yards north of Lieutenant Dudek’s position. Both platoons are part of the First Battalion, Fourteenth Infantry Regiment, and were based near Taji before they were rushed to Baghdad to help with the Sadr City operation.

The soldiers were told that they might be needed in Sadr City for a few days. Instead, they have been here for almost two weeks and are now preparing to stay longer. The Americans’ working relationship with the Iraqis is professional but not always clear.

“There is no good liaison right now between the I.A. and the coalition forces,” Lieutenant Bowen said. “It makes things kind of confusing to come up here not knowing exactly what you are getting yourself into tactical-wise. So you come up, figure out what the tactical situation is and try to push through from there.”

As the Iraqi and American officers huddled, the Iraqi lieutenant said some of his soldiers had been receiving threatening calls on their cellphones from members of the Madhi Army warning them to leave. The Iraqi lieutenant could not say how the Mahdi Army obtained their phone numbers, but some Iraqi soldiers who participated in the Basra fighting deserted after their families were threatened.

As the discussions continued, one stocky Iraqi soldier stepped forward and announced that he was not afraid of the fighters from Jaysh al-Madhi —or JAM as it is called by American military — regardless of the threats.

 “In case I see a bad guy I will not arrest him,” the Iraqi soldier said through an American military interpreter. “I will kill him immediately to get revenge for my guys who were lost.”

“That is absolutely understandable,” Lieutenant Bowen responded. “If they have a weapon and if you ID them as a JAM member, eliminate the threat.”

The militias have their own unique way of signaling the presence of the foes. The Americans say the militias have been using trained pigeons to signal the presence of American and Iraqi troops. The Iraqis wanted to know if they could fire on the pigeon keepers as American troops have done during the bitter fighting here.

As long as the Iraqis determined that the flocks of birds were not a coincidence, the Americans advised, the pigeon keepers were fair game.

As if on cue, a group of birds was observed hovering over a rooftop across the street. But the American and Iraqi soldiers had a more immediate concern: stopping the sniper fire down a nearby ally.

Lieutenant Bowen pointed to the charred ruins of a building across the street and explained that it had burned to the ground when one of his Stryker vehicles hit a roadside bomb, wounding some of its crew.

“Before the I.A. came up here this entire area was ridiculously dangerous,” he said. But alleys remain a problem.

“Typically, they have not cleared it because they don’t have enough troops,” Lieutenant Bowen said. “They don’t feel secure as they move down these alleyways. I think a lot of that is because they might be new. I think a lot of it is them being green. That is what we are trying to overcome by bringing an American presence up here, giving them suggestions, giving them a helpful shove.”

As the Americans and Iraqis pondered how to silence the sniper, the Iraqi lieutenant explained that their enemy appeared to be firing from a small hole in a wall at the end of the alley, which informants had said was rigged with bombs.

The American troops set up a position to observe the alley soon after they arrived. They told the Iraqis they should take it over before the platoon pulled back. The Iraqis were anxious about doing so. An earlier observation point had been pummeled with rocket-propelled grenades.

The lesson, the Americans said, was to be less obvious about the vigilance, not to abandon it altogether. Sgt. George Lewis, the platoon sergeant, said he would personally lead the Iraqis to the American position.

After some gentle persuasion, the Iraqis agreed to go along, but not until they wolfed down a quick lunch of bread and rice.

Sergeant Lewis said the performance of the Iraqi troops had improved noticeably during the Sadr City fight, but added that they also had a long way to go.

“They have their experienced guys,” he said. “But there are more new guys than experienced guys. The experienced guys are the ones in the higher ranks, the officers and senior enlisted guys. Down at the lower levels, like squad leader, platoon leader or team leader, there are not very many experienced guys to lead them in the right direction. That is where the problem lies right there.”

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