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.
Rivalries between Sadr's political organization and the United Iraqi Alliance, the bloc of Shiite parties to which Maliki belongs, could also unravel the truce. The political tension has fueled violence and led Sadrists to accuse Maliki of using Iraq's security forces to undermine Sadr ahead of the provincial elections, which are widely expected to alter the country's political landscape and could weaken the authority of the central government.
Iraqi soldiers began searching for banned weapons and wanted militiamen on Wednesday, a day after taking positions in Humvees and armored vehicles along the district's main roads. Many soldiers appeared relaxed. Some napped in their vehicles.
"We are not afraid to go anywhere," said Sgt. Romi Sayah, 30. "We did not come to go against any political party. We're only after the outlaws."
Sayah said he was relieved that U.S. troops were not playing a central role in the operation, which would have provoked the militias. He said U.S. forces should leave Iraq. "I think it's time," he said. "The Iraqi army has proven itself."
Hussain Abu Fararah, a 30-year-old fishmonger, said he was pleased that businesses were starting to open again.
"The situation is very good right now," he said. "The last few weeks everything has been cut off. No work."
His only gripe, he said jokingly, is that fish he buys in other parts of the city die en route to Sadr City because it takes so long to clear checkpoints.
"It takes three or four hours to get in," he said. "The fish don't hold on that long."
In Basra, residents are enjoying a renewed sense of security after years of lawlessness.
Approximately 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and scores of policemen blanket the city, manning checkpoints on virtually every stretch of road. Gen. Mohan al-Furaiji, who until a week ago was the top Iraqi army commander in Basra, said the military had detained more than 800 suspected militiamen. Others have fled the city or abandoned their militias or were killed, he said.
Furaiji said the situations in Basra and Sadr City were different. Unlike in Basra, militiamen in Sadr City were receptive to the presence of Iraqi forces and promised to lay down their weapons.
"The plan is to clean Sadr City of weapons, and capture those wanted by the judiciary," Furaiji said. "If anyone challenges the situation and tries to fight us, we will fight back."
On Basra's al-Jazaar Street, Akeel al-Asadi, 38, gave a haircut in his brightly lighted barbershop. "The presence of the Iraqi army has made people safe, not 100 percent, but 90 percent," he said.
Raghavan reported from Basra. Correspondent Amit R. Paley and special correspondents Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and Aahad Ali in Basra contributed to this report.