If you want to know whether a surge of U.S. troops in Baghdad will make a difference, listen to Iraqis like taxi driver Ali Mansoor, 38. Last fall Mansoor's neighborhood in central Baghdad, a mixed Shi'ite-Sunni area known as al-Sadoon, became a sectarian killing zone. The streets around his house were the scene of scores of murders and abductions every day. And then, for one week last October, the violence stopped. "There was a big change in the security situation. Everybody noticed," says Mansoor, who asked not to be identified by his real name. "In my area, there was not a single kidnapping or killing."
So what happened? For the first time since the war began, U.S. forces had locked down the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, haven to the militias and death squads loyal to rebel Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Looking for a missing U.S. soldier, the Americans cordoned off much of Sadr City, preventing hundreds of killers from slipping out. On Oct. 24, the daily murder rate fell roughly 50%. It stayed down for more than a week, until Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded that the U.S. end the blockade around Sadr City. After the U.S. pulled out, the body count in Baghdad returned to its previous levels, and life for Iraqis like Mansoor became hell again. "I think most of the bad guys came from Sadr City," says Mansoor. "The Americans should attack that place today, not tomorrow."
By every indication, the Bush Administration is gearing up for a last, desperate push to pacify Baghdad. The U.S. plan calls for increasing by 21,500 the number of U.S. troops in Iraq in the months ahead, with 17,500 of them deployed to Baghdad, the bleeding heart of the country's civil war. In his Jan. 10 speech announcing the surge, President Bush said U.S. troops would have "a green light" to go into the lairs of powerful Shi'ite militias like al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which until now have been left largely untouched by them. That hands-off policy has turned Sadr City into Baghdad's ground zero: a bristling hothouse of sectarian hatred that exists outside the control of U.S. and Iraqi authorities. The success or failure of the surge may hinge on whether the U.S. can take Sadr City back.
The challenge is enormous. By some estimates, half the daily sectarian attacks in Baghdad flow out of Sadr City. Home to more than 2 million people, the area is a world unto itself. From the air, the perfect street grid makes it seem like a pocket of civic order. But a glance down any street reveals the place for what it is, one of the world's biggest and poorest slums. Clouds of flies roll over roads and alleyways covered in the stench of rotting garbage and open sewers. Houses are so close together in some areas that Mahdi Army fighters say they can jump from roof to roof for miles, keeping watch on streets below.