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American Raid Follows Sadr's Return to Public Eye

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm John Ydstie.

A day after radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr appeared in public after a long absence, U.S. and Iraqi forces raided his stronghold of Sadr City. The U.S. military says early morning air strikes killed five suspected militia fighters. The military says it also captured a man suspected of bringing weapons and explosives from Iran. But the Iraqi police and Sadr members of parliament said the attack killed innocent civilians who were waiting in line at a gas station.

NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from Baghdad, and first, let's talk about Sadr. He had not been seen in public for six months. Where has he been all this time?

ANNE GARRELS: The U.S. says he went to Iran as the surge started. His aides, however, say he's been in Iraq the entire time. Now to admit Sadr was actually in Iran is a little tricky because it undercuts his nationalist credentials. Sadr has long distinguished himself from other competing Shiite politicians because they were in exile in Iran under Saddam. And Sadr and his family stayed here in Iraq throughout.

But wherever he was, Sadr's long absence was raising questions. And indeed during his absence, his militia had splintered with many commanders ignoring his orders to stop attacking Iraqi forces and to stop sectarian killings. Yesterday, Sadr publicly repeated those orders and he went even further saying he would now defend Sunnis.

YDSTIE: How does the U.S. view Sadr now that he's reemerged?

GARRELS: You know, there's been a real shift. I thought it really interesting that the spokesman for the National Security Council in Washington expressed hope that Sadr's return meant he wanted to play a positive role. There's a new recognition of his huge popular support, and the U.S. seems to be trying to give him room at this point.

The U.S., for instance, detained and then after several months, released two senior Sadr aides. And they said they now view them as moderates, who might, in fact, help neutralize radicals in the Sadr movement. So there's some maneuvering going on here.

YDSTIE: But just as he appears in public, the U.S. launches a raid on Sadr City. How does this square with this new U.S. view?

GARRELS: Well, the U.S. has been going after hundreds of Shiite militiamen in recent months. But officials no longer automatically called them Sadr militiamen, instead, calling them rogue or criminal groups. And there are indications that in some instances, Sadr aides have actually been helping with the targets.

You know, as you noted, there are different accounts of exactly what happened in today's raid. But in general, I have to say the U.S. military has been incredibly cautious about moving on Sadr City. It wants to establish greater control, but it's trying to avoid a head-on clash.

YDSTIE: Now as we said, the U.S. says it captured an individual bringing in weapons and explosives from Iran. Is Sadr getting this kind of support from the Iranians?

GARRELS: Well, U.S. officials say lots of different armed groups - Sunni and Shiite - are getting support from Iran. And that includes Sadr's militia. Sadr's aides denied this. And, in fact, they're pretty critical of Iranian interference here.

But there's no question that militias acting in the name of Sadr, if not with his approval, have been using the new deadly roadside bombs, which the U.S. says come from Iran. They can pierce armor and they're responsible for the deaths of more and more American servicemen.

YDSTIE: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Thanks very much, Anne.

GARRELS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anne Garrels
John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.