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.
"We are against violations of human rights," not against law enforcement, he said.
If security is restored, Ubaidi said, the onus is on Maliki to demonstrate that his government can repair Sadr City's battered infrastructure. But he predicted that "the money for rebuilding will go to the pockets of the thieves."
Abu Haider al-Bahadili, a Sadr City resident who identified himself as a Mahdi Army commander, said many in the district fear the government is using its military strength to weaken Sadr politically before elections in the fall. "It's a battle for the upcoming provincial elections," he said.
Still, after weeks of clashes that have killed hundreds of civilians in Sadr City, raised food prices sharply and restricted residents' mobility, most are willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt, he said.
"The people are welcoming of any peace principle or idea," he said. "So if the Iraqi army presence is for peace, then they are welcomed."
Capt. Charles Calio, a U.S. military spokesman, said U.S. troops stand ready to provide "advice, guidance and support as requested" by Iraqi officials.
"This operation is an Iraqi led, planned and executed operation, and is another example of the Iraqis' growing confidence and ability to independently carry out complex combat, police and humanitarian operations," he said in an e-mail.
The recent fighting in Sadr City began in late March, after Maliki cracked down on Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra. Militiamen in Sadr City responded by launching rockets into the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government is located.
Because U.S. and Iraqi troops who entered Sadr City came under attack, the U.S. military responded with helicopter-launched missiles and Abrams tanks. Scores of civilians were killed in the crossfire.
Iraqi security forces have removed more than 100 roadside bombs in the district in recent days, said Gen. Qassim Atta, a spokesman in Baghdad.
Atta said the additional troops started entering Sadr City at 5 a.m. They set up checkpoints and took positions in key parts of the district. A large contingent set up in front of the main Sadr office in the district, on Dakhil Street. Office workers said they saw snipers stationed on roofs along the road.
Between 9,000 and 12,000 soldiers and police were deployed to Sadr City, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the information.
Also Tuesday, Maliki issued a statement saying he had received an apology from President Bush for the conduct of U.S. soldier who used a Koran for target practice at a shooting range. The episode, which drew condemnation from Iraqi officials, also prompted U.S. commanders to apologize and to pull the soldier from Iraq.
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.