May 3, 2008


Military's patience wears thin at Baghdad checkpoint: U.S. soldiers face obstacles of their own at a roadblock on the edge of the militia stronghold of Sadr City. (Tina Susmanm, 5/02/08, Los Angeles Times)

On a smog-choked stretch of "Route Pluto," a street haunted by snipers and bombs on the edge of Sadr City, Army Lt. Matt Vigeant was out in traffic looking for a white Opel.

A suspected Shiite Muslim extremist was expected at a funeral for one of his own, so Vigeant had set up an ad hoc roadblock in hope of nabbing him or other militants expected to be among the mourners.

He grew more frustrated with each passing car.

Frustrated that drivers were breezing through the orange traffic cones he had set up rather than slowly curling around them; frustrated that he had to yell above the belching engines and honking horns to get his soldiers' attention; frustrated that he and his men were risking their lives doing a job more likely to infuriate passers-by than yield results.

Even with a list of suspects and their vehicles and photographs in front of him, Vigeant was doubtful that a big fish would be foolish enough to approach a U.S. checkpoint, especially so close to Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite district where the funeral was being held.

Any militia leader wanted by security forces probably was holed up deep in the neighborhood, where the U.S. military has no permanent presence and, Vigeant said, people are too afraid of cleric Muqtada Sadr or too swayed by his anti-U.S. rhetoric to turn in anyone fighting in his name.

Vigeant's frustration was symbolic of the dilemma facing the U.S. military as it tries to quell violence in Sadr City without further inflaming Sadr loyalists, who want to drive the United States out of Iraq. The military knows that if it pushes too hard, Sadr could cancel a truce he called in August. If it doesn't push hard enough, it risks allowing extremists to continue their attacks.

Whatever it does, it faces the distrust of many Iraqis whose lives have been upended by five years of war, and who see the soldiers more as threats than as do-gooders.

"Some people are grateful, but the closer you get to Sadr City, the more obvious they make their feelings," said Vigeant, who made a point of thanking each driver he stopped and apologizing for the inconvenience. Most responded with polite nods. Some smiled.

"You try to show them you're friendly," he said. "You do all these things to show them we're not here as crusaders, but it gets really frustrating. JAM just has that popular support," he said, using the Arabic-based acronym for Sadr's Mahdi Army, which holds sway in Sadr City.

If the mission turns against Shi'ites why should they be grateful? The Colonists liked having the Redcoats save them from the French and Indians, but then gave them the unceremonious heave-ho.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 3, 2008 5:03 PM
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