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Rebuilding the Alamo to what avail?

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO

BAGHDAD, May 11 (UPI) -- The Baghdad office of Moqtada Sadr stands alone on a broad boulevard on the western outskirts of Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood named for Moqtada's father, Mohammed, a beloved figure among its dirt-poor Shiite population.

That broad boulevard is the only such road in the densely populated neighborhood, which is mostly a warren of filthy alleyways and shacks connected by roads filled with open sewage. And the office is one of a handful of structures in the area that stands alone.

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Even before Moqtada Sadr, a young radical cleric with a younger, more radical following, started the recent uprising against the American occupation, Sadr City was a dangerous place to go and most western journalists make it a rule to stay away for fear of non-ideological crime. But after months of rhetoric between Sadr and coalition officials turned ugly in early April, a few colleagues and I became regular visitors while we covered the fighting.

The only way to do this was to develop relationships with Sadr's office and its leader, Sayeed Amir, a youngish cleric who represented Sadr in Baghdad (Sadr himself lives in Kufa, two hours south of the capital). His name is actually Amir Husseini and is called Sayeed because he can trace his heritage directly back to the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

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And in the early days of the fighting, several of us would haul ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to drive into the neighborhood to cruise its trash and sewage covered streets in search of the telltale signs of conflict, to get a handle on what had happened and where. But to do this safely, my fixer and I would first stop at the office and get a representative of Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, to join us as a guide and protector.

After a morning of checking the front lines of the ongoing liberation effort, we'd usually end up on top of the office as hundreds of demonstrators taunted U.S. tanks and armored vehicles in a dangerous standoff. And often the vehicles would surround the simple brick and mortar compound, which includes a simple mosque on the ground floor. Each day this ritual by both sides would be the foreplay for another night of bloody fighting.

After the first day of sharing the common danger and a few meals, my translator and I had become welcome guests of Mehdi in Sadr City and would arrive each morning wondering which of the kids wouldn't be there, having been killed the night before. Our presence became normal for the fighters and they would actually show serious concern about our safety and take measures to protect us from both American bullets and some of their more psychotic colleagues.

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It was about that time that my buddy Scott and I nicknamed the building the Alamo, as when standing on top of it and watching kids face off with tanks surrounding a simple brick building, it was easy to feel like a last stand was in progress.

It was around that time when one night, U.S. warplanes fired two laser guided missiles into the side of the compound, knocking down a couple of walls. By noon the next day, Sadr City had rebuilt the wall and plastered a poster of Sadr on the side where the missile had hit.

As the fight moved south to Kufa and Najaf, where Sadr remains openly defiant of the U.S. troops surrounding those cities, Sadr City became quieter as many of the fighter moved south to protect him and to support Mehdi's occupation of those holy cities. While the past few weeks haven't seen much movement by the Americans against the cities themselves, Mehdi has taken significant causalities in a few clashes, weakening their already ragtag military strength.

That changed this weekend when U.S. forces raided the Alamo and arrested Sayeed Amir and several others, setting off another round of fighting in Baghdad. The resulting fighting left dozens of Mehdi fighters dead in Baghdad and has been followed by a protest march in Najaf by hundreds of more moderate Shiite demanding that Sadr's men end the occupation of that holy city.

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In a visit to the Alamo on Sunday, after Sayeed Amir's arrest, the tenor of the neighborhood had grown more hostile as young fighters were left leaderless and angry by the turn of events. Even with a guide from the Mehdi office, the fighters were suspicious of me, which led to some accusations of spying and a hasty exit from the area.

Then a helicopter and tank attack on the Alamo leveled the building overnight on Monday and a couple of dozen more Mehdi fighters were killed. But true to form, dozens of Sadr supporters turned out on Tuesday to rebuild the office and by midday had mostly succeeded in restoring it to its shabby self. But again the tone was suspicious. With word coming in of anti-Sadr demonstrations in holy Shiite cities and the casualties inflicted on them, and the lack of public support from Iraq's moderate Shiite population, Sadr's people have grown more hostile as it becomes more apparent that they are losing. And while they will continue to control Sadr City regardless of what the American military would have you believe, Sadr never capitalized on the initial support he received for standing up to the occupation.

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He tapped into the growing sentiment within the liberated Shiite community -- that suffered so much under Saddam -- that the American presence in an occupation and not a liberation but he failed to convince the population he could win a fight, political or otherwise. And with each passing day it is clear that they will not fight for him and his young supporters.

In the past, the rebuilding of the Alamo was celebratory. Today it was the grim determination of men who know that they have lost.

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