By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 13, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 12 -- Iraqi and U.S. military forces on Saturday pushed deeper into the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, an area largely controlled by Shiite militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
A curfew imposed on Sadr City more than a week ago was lifted, and residents appeared on the streets as shops reopened, despite the large presence of U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
Leaders of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia reported that U.S. and Iraqi forces had split the area into at least two sections and were placing concrete barriers at a major intersection. American and Iraqi snipers patrolled from the rooftops of nearby buildings.
The Mahdi Army leaders also said Iraqi and American security forces had massed outside a home in Sadr City where a memorial service was being held for cleric Riyadh al-Nouri, a senior Sadr aide assassinated in the holy city of Najaf on Friday.
"The siege is still on," said Abu Haider, a Mahdi Army leader in Sadr City.
Abu Haider called the cancellation of the curfew a propaganda ploy and said government forces had opened just one entrance point for traffic into Sadr City, home to an estimated 2 million people.
"You can imagine the traffic jam," he said.
Separately, the U.S. military said an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb Saturday morning in northwest Baghdad. At least 19 American troops have been killed in Iraq since last Sunday, making it the deadliest week for U.S. troops in Iraq this year, according to a count by the Associated Press.
Hundreds of people have died in fighting between Sadr's followers and U.S. and Iraqi forces since late last month, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a major offensive against the militia and other groups in the southern port city of Basra.
Sadr aides have said they detected a political motive in the Basra offensive and the continuing operations against the Mahdi Army. Sadr's supporters, who are vying for power against Maliki's party and other Shiite movements, expect to do well in key provincial and local elections set for later this year.
The U.S. military said 11 fighters were killed in operations in Sadr City on Friday, as American and Iraqi forces battled snipers and fighters firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. A drone-fired missile killed three men planting roadside bombs, the military said.
The U.S. military said that two armored vehicles were damaged in the Sadr City fighting but that no U.S. or Iraqi troops were killed or seriously injured.
Abu Haider said that American helicopters hovered above Sadr City on Friday night and that civilians were injured in the fighting, which damaged homes and shops.
Maj. Mark Cheadle, a U.S. military spokesman, reported that the fighting was less intense Saturday and that American and Iraqi forces were setting up security stations to be manned by Iraqis.
"They can't stop that," Cheadle said, referring to the militiamen. "It's just a matter of how painful they want to make it."
Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.