Friday, March 09, 2007

Sadr City Officials Optomistic

By Damien Cave New York Times Thursday, March 8, 2007 BAGHDAD: When Raheem al-Darraji looks at the dusty lots just east of Sadr City where scores of bodies have been dumped since last year, he visualizes a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster and perhaps a merry go-round. "We should have an amusement park," said Darraji, one of two elected mayors in Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite neighborhood where U.S. and Iraqi troops have been peacefully clearing homes since March 4. "We want to rehabilitate the area so that families can have fun." In an interview at his office, Darraji said the amusement park was one of several projects that community leaders are pushing U.S. officials to fund in negotiations about how to handle the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that has controlled the neighborhood for years. A concentrated makeover of Sadr City, he said, would support plan's goals in two important ways: by giving young Mahdi militants an alternative to a life of violence and by providing residents with proof of the government's ability to improve their daily lives, diluting support for the militia. Darraji's requests, however, also reflect a broader effort by Iraqi leaders to dart past "clear and hold" to the more lucrative phase of the new security plan known as build. Even as bombs and killings here continue, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al- Maliki has already labeled the plan a success. His Shiite-led government has allotted $10 billion this year for reconstruction throughout the country and with billions more expected from the Americans, Iraqi leaders at all levels are scrambling for control of how the windfall might be spent. Ahmad Chalabi, who has re-emerged as an intermediary between Baghdad residents and the Iraqi and U.S. security forces, now regularly holds meetings with leaders from all over Baghdad as they compete for roles in managing the expected infusion of projects and jobs. At one recent gathering in the Green Zone, representatives from 15 neighborhoods in eastern Baghdad stood one after another to explain why they should be chosen to lead. For U.S. officials, Sadr City's calls for an amusement park and other projects raise a particularly thorny question of trust. In 2004, U.S. troops battled Mahdi militants here for days. More recently, U.S. military officials have accused the militia of using deadlier roadside bombs, possibly linked to Iran, that have killed at least 170 U.S. service members. At the same time, the negotiations over the Mahdi militia along with the arrest or flight of several commanders appear to have led to a temporary truce. U.S. soldiers were welcomed into people's homes this week on streets where they had once been shot at. General David Petraeus, at his first news conference as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, acknowledged Thursday that the Mahdi militia included a mix of both violent extremists and those with more benign motivations. Darraji stressed that Sadr City as a whole "wants to open a new page in its story." He said Mahdi fighters had laid down their weapons to give the government a chance and that the opportunity should not be missed. He emphasized that the prime minister's office was already seizing the moment with an expanded job recruitment drive for neighborhood residents. As proof, Darraji — a chain-smoking tribal sheik partial to tailored suits — opened a door near his office and pointed to a pile of red, green and yellow folders that he said were job applications for every part of the government from the Oil Ministry to the police. "We've collected more than 2,000 applications," he said. "We're classifying them according whether people have college degrees, whether they are men or women." He and other Baghdad government leaders said that the U.S. military would be smart to add hundreds of additional jobs in the neighborhood because it holds at least 1.5 million people, or about a third of the city, and has just begun to revive after decades of neglect. They said the neighborhood deserves to become a model of what might be possible elsewhere. "The plan is not only about security," said Naeem al-Kabbi, Baghdad's deputy mayor in charge of municipal services. "It's about security, services and reconstruction." Darraji said he specifically pressed U.S. officials for money to build playgrounds with tennis courts that would appear every few blocks. He said he pressed the Americans for money to rehabilitate a handful of lakes on the neighborhood's western edge and for more control over the contracts so they could be assigned more quickly. "We need to engage people as soon as possible, get them working, make them busy," he said. "These are quick projects. After these we will move on to medium and larger plans." "The security process," he added, "accelerates the economic possibilities."

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