Crunch time: U.S., Iraqi troops set to occupy Sadr City; Update: Sadr still in Iran?

U.S. troops have been waiting, with dread, for weeks to see if the order would come. The Times reported on January 17 that the brass were considering bypassing the neighborhood altogether:

American military commanders are now debating whether a large-scale offensive in Sadr City, a vast grid of cinder-block houses in northeastern Baghdad that is the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, should be the way to confront the fighters. American soldiers battled the militia twice in 2004, but it emerged stronger after Mr. Sadr entered the political system and helped install Mr. Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister last spring.

One senior military official said a large-scale operation “cannot be taken off the table,” but others speak of plans to isolate the militia by cutting off northeastern neighborhoods where the militia dominates, and then continuing to chip away at its networks elsewhere.

In fact, it wasn’t taken off the table. They’re going in:

U.S. and Iraqi troops will soon launch a major sweep in the Shi’ite militia bastion of Sadr City, military officials said on Thursday, a pivotal moment for the make-or-break security crackdown in Baghdad…

In the new campaign, U.S. and Iraqi troops will set up joint checkpoints in Sadr City and conduct large-scale door-to-door operations on houses and buildings, a significant escalation in a plan regarded as the last chance to avert sectarian civil war…

“We have conducted special operations in Sadr City for some months but this will be the first time we will launch full-scale operations there and the first time we will have a permanent presence there,” said Colonel Billy Don Farris, coalition forces commander for Sadr City and Adhamiya neighborhoods.

“There will be no sanctuaries in Iraq. We are going to go to every building and every house and incrementally clear the area. We will target any group that attacks Iraqi and U.S. troops,” he told Reuters…

Sheikh Raheem al-Darruji, the mayor of Sadr City, said the Sadrists were willing to give the plan a chance but said if attacks against the Shi’ite community continued “the people of Sadr City would defend again their neighborhoods”.

Darruji met with military commanders last month to broker a truce between the residents and U.S. forces that would have avoided any major operations there. I guess it didn’t pan out. Bill Roggio says he knows why — it’s because we’ve decided to divide and conquer the Sadrists rather than make a deal with them.

The obvious question now is whether Sadr’s going to stick to his passive resistance strategy or whether things are going to blow up. I wish I had answers for you.

Update: Iraqslogger has a few more details about the planned U.S. presence in the area. It includes a “joint security position,” a.k.a., mini-fort.

Update: Meanwhile, in Anbar, Iraqi troops — acting alone — allegedly cut a swath through the jihad today. And the dispute about the soccer field car bomb in Ramadi is still raging. Local U.S. forces insist that it never happened; a local sheikh swears to WaPo that it did, on Monday afternoon, and that AQ was responsible. There are two silver linings if the sheikh is lying: not only would there be 18 fewer dead kids, but disgust with Al Qaeda will have obviously reached the point where even Sunnis are planting propaganda against them in the media.

Update: Word on the street from the MEMRI Blog is that Sadr’s hanging around his cousin’s house in Qom, Iran, along with many of the Mahdi Army’s leaders.