Baghdad; May 25, 2004 – While US troops continue to damage mosques in heavy fighting against resistance forces they say are holed up in holy sites of Kufa and Kerbala, men in the Sadr City area of Baghdad rushed yesterday to join the Mehdi Army, a militia force loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. The recruitment surge followed bloody overnight fighting here that left many Iraqis dead. Not surprisingly, accounts of the overnight battle, as with most recent engagements, differ greatly depending on whom one asks.
Residents of this vast, impoverished area of over one million saw US troops battle members of the Mehdi Army early yesterday morning. According to Agence FrancePresse , hospitals counted 18 civilians killed in the fighting, but Captain Brian Oâ€™Malley of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, operating in the area, said US forces killed 26 Iraqis, all of them militiamen loyal to Muqtada Al-Sadr.
The heavily resisted assault on targets in Sadr City by US forces came less than a day after the US 1st Cavalry Division completed a weapons purchasing program in the district, through which the Army bought assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, mortars and artillery shells, among other weapons, "at or above market prices." The Army boasted that thousands of weapons were turned over by Sadr City residents, but the real effect of the program was unclear at the end of last yesterdayâ€™s fighting, which was possibly the fiercest this neighborhood has seen since tensions between US forces and Muqtada Al-Sadr escalated in late March.
This fighter is married and has six children, but said he will be honored to become a martyr if he is killed fighting against foreign troops occupying his country. "God will save my children if I die because the Mehdi is the army of the people," he stated.
As men congregated around the newly rebuilt office of Muqtada Al-Sadr in order to join his militia, Sheikh Hassan Al-Adari, a spokesman for Al-Sadr, claimed that many of the people killed last night were civilians and said such a slaughter will only serve to draw angry Iraqis to the resistance. "Itâ€™s normal to see people coming here from all over Baghdad to join us in defending against the occupiers," he said, "especially when the Americans are killing civilians and attacking our holy places."
Al-Adari also said that followers of Al-Sadr, along with the vast majority of Iraqis, are enraged at what he and others here call "the wedding massacre." He was referring to the incident in the tiny village of Makr Al-Dib last Wednesday, where US gunship crews killed more than 40 Iraqis in overnight airstrikes. Numerous Iraqi eyewitnesses, as well as home videos obtained and other footage shot by the Associated Press Television Network, suggest the victims were civilians who had attended a late night wedding celebration.
The US military insists the target was a terrorist safe house and has images it says contradicts the localsâ€™ version of events.
Eman Ahmed Khammas, director of the Baghdad office of International Occupation Watch, who visited the site of the bloodbath, located near the Syrian border, offers an account that supports statements by local residents. "I saw it with my own eyes," she recounted during an interview at her home in central Baghdad. "It is only a sheep ranch and there were no fighters there, nor any evidence of weapons."
Khammas described a horrendous scene of bullet-riddled musical instruments from the 13 band members killed in the assault, blood and pieces of flesh drying in the sand, and mourning neighbors and family members of slain wedding celebrants.
A list of victims from last weekâ€™s attack showed that 12 women and seven children under the age of 18 lay among the dead, including a 4 year-old girl named Fatima, as well as Raâ€™ad, a one month-old baby boy. The list was provided by Dr. Hambdi Al-Rawi, director of the hospital in Al-Qaim.
"Iraqis everywhere are saddened by what happened there," said Khammas. "But they are even more enraged at the lying of the American military and their complete disrespect towards the Iraqi people."
Her outrage is shared by participants of a funeral wake in Sadr City yesterday for Amir Yassin, a member of the Mehdi Army killed while fighting US forces Monday morning. "We are fighting to protect our homes here," said a Mehdi fighter who asked to remain nameless but grew excited as he spoke. "Even though the Americans only come here at night now, they are still invading our city and killing our civilians. We are only guarding our homes and our people."
The fighter is married and has six children, but said he will be honored to become a martyr if he is killed fighting against foreign troops occupying his country. "God will save my children if I die because the Mehdi is the army of the people," he stated. "This is an intifada of the people," the man continued, using Arabic that roughly translates to "shrugging off." He added, "Our parents encourage us to get revenge for every death."
A man identified as commander of two brigades of the Shiâ€™ite-run Mehdi Army in Sadr City, who also asked to remain anonymous, said Sunni Muslims have joined the Shiâ€™ite-led resistance force. "We have 700 Sunnis fighting with us here," he said, "because we are fighting so that our holy places arenâ€™t destroyed like they are in Najaf, Kut and Kerbala." He angrily added, "The Americans invaded us, and now they have made this a holy war."
A spokesperson at the Coalition Press Information Center who refused to provide a name also declined to relay any information concerning the nature of the US military operation in Sadr City.