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Al-Sadr seldom appears in Sadr City. He normally resides in the southern Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, where U.S. forces battled the Mahdi Army in 2004. U.S. troops stage occasional raids in the sector against Mahdi Army operatives, which the Pentagon now considers a greater threat to security than al-Qaeda. But al-Maliki has consistently stopped American forces from waging an all-out assault on the Mahdi Army or its leadership out of fear of alienating his political base. "The Iraqi leadership has prevented us from targeting some leaders," says a senior military official. "Our understanding is that [such restraints] are now over." In a Jan. 17 meeting with reporters from five news organizations, including TIME, al-Maliki said the new security plan "will not spare anyone who breaks the law, regardless of any militias that he belongs to."
Still, Administration officials won't say whether they intend to take on the Mahdi Army immediately. Retired four-star Army General Jack Keane, who has been advising the White House, says the U.S. plans to focus first on stabilizing mixed Sunni-Shi'ite neighborhoods, which, in theory, would bolster confidence in both communities and give al-Maliki the political space to take on al-Sadr's militias on his own. "After a number of weeks, Maliki will get the leverage ... to persuade the Shi'a militia leaders to get off the offensive," Keane says.
The U.S. wants that effort to be led by Iraqi troops. But much of the Iraqi army in the capital is ill equipped and undisciplined, and many Iraqi army units hardly hide their sectarianism. That means the task of pacifying Sadr City may fall to U.S. troops. Under the Army's Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain (MOUT) doctrine, squads of troops would cordon off blocks of Baghdad and warily permeate them, shooting anyone who threatened them. Once a block had been sealed and secured, a protective force would remain there while troops moved on to the next one.
The fighting would be bloody. Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, estimates that the battle for Sadr City would be "Mogadishu times 10"--referring to the failed U.S. effort in the early 1990s to rescue Somalia from anarchy and famine that saw 43 Americans killed. But Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and military scholar, says taking back Sadr City, while producing potentially substantial losses in the short run, is crucial if the U.S. hopes to curb al-Sadr's strength. "The best way to deal with Sadr City is to just do it--take everything you've got and clean it out," Peters says. "Dithering won't help."
The worst-case scenario would be a dragged-out battle that produced high civilian casualties and ignited anti-U.S. anger among Shi'ite masses--just as the battle of Fallujah did among Sunnis in 2004. Sadr's forces could also melt away and bet that the U.S. will pull back again. It's not a bad gamble: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says the surge isn't likely to last past August, in part because of waning public support for the war. On a just-completed trip to Baghdad, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh told al-Maliki that Americans won't tolerate seeing U.S. lives wasted. "I don't want your soldiers to die either," al-Maliki said. "Give us the weapons, and let us do what we need to do." For better or worse, he may eventually get his wish.