Iraq Sends Troops Into Sadr City

U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are building a wall between the north and south sides of Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, in hopes of creating a safe haven for the south amid ongoing conflicts.
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

BAGHDAD, May 20 -- Thousands of Iraqi soldiers entered the volatile Sadr City district of eastern Baghdad on Tuesday, meeting virtually no resistance from Shiite militiamen who in recent weeks have clashed heavily with U.S. and Iraqi troops, Iraqi officials said.

The deployment, which began at dawn, was the first phase of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's long-awaited effort to restore order in the vast Shiite area, a stronghold for loyalists of radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqi and U.S. officials described the effort, dubbed Operation Peace, as led, planned and executed entirely by Iraqis. U.S. soldiers, who operate from small outposts in Sadr City, did not play an active role.

Iraqi officials and Sadr City residents said the soldiers, who streamed into the area in Humvees and on foot, were greeted warmly. Some fighters from Sadr's Mahdi Army militia handed soldiers copies of the Koran as a goodwill gesture, one resident said.

"The situation is very calm," said Abu Zaineb, an official at the cleric's office in Sadr City. "There is a great response from the people toward the troops, and there is no tension or resentment."

There were no reports of clashes during the first day of the operation, which began just over a week after political leaders of Sadr's party reached a cease-fire with lawmakers of Maliki's political bloc.

During the negotiations, Sadr leaders asked that U.S. forces be kept at bay and promised to take steps to prevent rocket attacks into the Green Zone and residential areas.

Iraqi officials say the first phase of the operation will seek to restore security along the district's main roads. Iraqi soldiers are then expected to search homes for banned weapons and detain wanted militiamen.

Iraqi officials and Sadr City leaders said the push is unlikely to be seen as provocation by Sadr because it is occurring during dialogue between Shiite political factions.

"When there's an agreement with the government, people welcome these forces," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker. "The people are feeling almost liberated. They don't want fighting. They want services. They want to live. They want security."

Maliki's push into Sadr City comes as he is seeking to regain control of Mosul, a northern city where Sunni insurgents have recently carried out large-scale attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces. That operation, which also entailed a troop escalation, has not triggered significant clashes. Government officials say several hundred suspected insurgents have been arrested.

Salah Ubaidi, a spokesman for Sadr in Sadr City, said residents will be cooperative as long as Iraqi troops conduct searches respectfully. In the past, he said, the troops have used excessive force and detained people for political reasons.

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