Near the main office of Moqtada Al-Sadr, in the part of Baghdad known as Sadr City, followers of the rebel cleric continue to fight the U.S. military despite suffering heavy losses. While the military claims to have killed more than 800 Iraqis, most of them fighters, during the last nine weeks in the sprawling urban slum area of over a million people, leaders of Al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army, along with residents of the area and hospital sources, claim that many of the dead were unarmed civilians.
According to Dr. Ali Jumali at Khadasiyah Hospital, the only facility in Sadr City with a morgue, 221 residents from the area who died as a result of the fighting were brought to the morgue between May 4 and May 31. Dr. Jumali said another 100 bodies were sent to Adnan Hospital in central Baghdad during the same time frame.
"We don’t receive [the fighters’] bodies," Jumali said, "because we are afraid the American military will raid the hospital as they’ve done in the past." Jumali also said the hospital cannot even provide emergency care to men thought to have been resisting US patrols, for fear the Army will raid the facility in search of suspects. According to Jumali, during that four-week period in May, well over 300 civilians, many of them children, died during the clashes.
"Even as a doctor, I can’t look at the children’s bodies," he said quietly. "The biggest problem we have now is the Americans are using a different bullet which shreds them, and we are left with performing so many amputations now."
At Al-Sadr’s office, where black banners for the dead hang on the brick walls, office manager Sheikh Hassan said, "We just want the American troops to stay out of our city because they are killing everyone." He continued, "Nobody expects good things from the soldiers any longer since they break every promise they make to us."
Last Friday, on the outskirts of the poverty-stricken area, members of the militia struck a Humvee with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing five U.S. soldiers. Mehdi fighters have now killed 14 American servicemen since May 1, according to the military.
A few nights later, young men, many of whom belong to the Mehdi, stood in the courtyard of the small Sadr City headquarters nervously discussing plans, as they expected the U.S. military to return later that night. Most are unemployed and have had no military training. Yassim, a 16-year-old boy holding a pistol in each hand while guarding the front gate of the Sadr office, promised vigilance. "As long as the Americans come here, we will be fighting them," he said.
On June 6, local members of the Mehdi Army attacked the Al-Karama Iraqi Police station in Sadr City, killing two policemen and damaging the building with explosives.
"We don’t like the Americans to use the police station," said Sheikh Abdel Jabbar, a commander in the Mehdi militia. "It’s not the Mehdi Army that led this attack, it is the people."
While holding a pistol, he added, "This is the second time the Americans have used the police station. They use it for their protection because it is surrounded by families’ houses and the market."
Al-Karama, known for its residents’ strong resistance to the occupation forces, underwent heavy fighting that night. Attackers are said to have cut electricity and water for the area and instructed all area residents to stay inside their homes for five days. As a result, the market was closed. Children were not allowed to go to school and missed their yearly exams.
"The solution is for the Americans to stop entering the city," said the Sheikh.
While reports suggest that popular opinion in Najaf and Kufa, to the south, has turned against Mehdi militiamen who spent the past couple months patrolling those cities, many residents of Sadr City say they support the Mehdi fighters here for resisting the U.S. occupation, though they say they are growing weary of the almost daily combat.
"My son was killed here by the Americans," said Ali Hammad outside of his home near the hospital. "And I am honored that he is a martyr for defending us against their crusade."
Yet at the same time, there are those who wish the Mehdi Army would leave the area, in hopes their departure would make room for peace. One man, speaking on the condition that he remains nameless due to fear of reprisals from the rebels, expressed his desire for the militia to leave Sadr City.
"It is simple, that if the Mehdi militia would leave here, there would be no more fighting."
But the Mehdi fighters in Sadr City say they have no plans to disband or disarm.