Iraqi Troops Welcomed In Sadr City

A teen lifts weights at a gym in Sadr City that reopened after Iraqi troops were deployed in the Shiite stronghold. The troops were welcomed with flowers and copies of the Koran.
A teen lifts weights at a gym in Sadr City that reopened after Iraqi troops were deployed in the Shiite stronghold. The troops were welcomed with flowers and copies of the Koran. (By Ernesto Londono -- The Washington Post)
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By Ernesto Londoño and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 22, 2008

BAGHDAD, May 21 -- Iraqi soldiers moved unhindered through Baghdad's vast Sadr City district on Wednesday as Shiite militiamen who have long controlled the area faded from view and schools and businesses began to reopen after weeks of strife.

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing an increasingly successful effort to contain the militias of his Shiite rivals and to exercise authority over areas where Iraqi forces were once unwelcome. The strategy has won Maliki admiration from Sunni politicians and from U.S. and British officials, who credit him with exerting some of the political will necessary to achieve reconciliation.

An offensive against militias in the southern city of Basra earlier this year required hastily organized support from U.S. and British forces, but this week's deployment of thousands of Iraqi troops into Sadr City so far has included no overt assistance from the U.S. military.

Sadr City is a largely impoverished section of Baghdad that is home to about 2 million people, many of whom support the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a onetime backer of Maliki who has become his chief rival. Sadrist officials negotiated the entry of Iraqi troops, apparently winning agreement that U.S. forces would stay out.

Sadr is motivated by several interests: By allowing Iraqi troops into his Baghdad stronghold, he hopes to bolster his nationalist credentials and improve his movement's image. The government's expanded presence could also bring long-promised investment and services to his core constituency ahead of provincial elections scheduled for this year.

Shortly after Maliki launched the Basra offensive in March, militiamen in Sadr City and other parts of Baghdad stepped up mortar and rocket attacks against the Green Zone, the fortified enclave that houses many U.S. and Iraqi officials. U.S. and Iraqi troops reacted by moving more forcefully against Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, prompting clashes that subsided last week following a cease-fire negotiated by Sadrist leaders and lawmakers allied with Maliki.

On Wednesday, Iraqi troops received flowers and copies of the Koran from Sadr City residents, as well as assistance from Sadrist officials. Among the signs of renewed normalcy, one was striking: Ali Adnan, an Iraqi soldier, took a shower at a Sadr headquarters, as some of his colleagues washed their uniforms at a sink. "We expected some resistance," Adnan said. "We found the exact opposite."

Sadrist leaders said they had demanded that American soldiers remain on the sidelines of the military incursion.

"We stressed that the occupation forces do not come in," said Selman al-Freiji, a senior Sadrist leader in Baghdad. "We welcome the entrance of Iraqi troops."

U.S. officials have said they were happy to let Iraqi troops take the lead. "It is heartening to see Iraqi security forces operating peacefully while enforcing the rule of law," Capt. Gordon J. Delcambre, a U.S. military spokesman said in an e-mail.

But Iraqi officials have limited control over U.S. military operations. A small number of U.S. soldiers operate out of outposts in Sadr City, and U.S. Apache helicopters monitor the area round-the-clock.

U.S. military officials say they don't expect U.S. troops to venture north of the southern strip of Sadr City where they now have a presence.

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