Iraqi government forces roll into the Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad Saturday, May 17, 2008. Sadr City appeared to be calm Saturday after weeks of bloody clashes between the US forces and Mahdi army fighters.
(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
By LEE KEATH, Associated Press Writer Wed May 21, 4:31 PM ET
BAGHDAD – With not a Shiite fighter in sight, shoppers crowded through markets and cars packed the streets in Baghdad’son Wednesday — a positive early sign for Iraqi forces in their bid to impose control following a truce with the militia in its stronghold.
But while peace held in the sprawling slum a day after thousands of Iraqi troops rolled in, there were indications that militants were increasing their activity elsewhere. Skirmishes broke out in some nearby districts, including a clash that the U.S. military said killed 11 Shiite gunmen.
Support for anti-U.S. Shiite clericis high among Sadr City’s 2.5 million residents, nearly half the population of Baghdad. Many see his Mahdi Army fighters as their protectors against Sunni insurgents and the distrusted American forces.
On Wednesday, however, people seemed relieved by the deployment and the calm it brought after weeks of clashes between his Mahdi Army fighters and allied U.S. and Iraqi troops on the edges of the district and in its southern sector.
Alaa Jassem, a day laborer, said the Iraqi troops were welcome — “they are our brothers, our sons, our friends” — but said the government “must be sincere in its promises and deliver aid to the city.”
The Iraqi government has said that as part of the deployment, it will direct funds for reconstruction in Sadr City, which is plagued by poor sewage systems that often overflow, drinking water shortages and poor garbage collection.
Success in Sadr City would be a major boost to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government is seeking to show it can extend its authority over parts of the country long under the control of armed groups.
Much depends on the durability of a truce reached last week between the government and the Mahdi Army. None of the black-garbed fighters was seen on the streets Wednesday, and Sadrist Movement officials say they will stick by the cease-fire. But some have already complained about the unexpected size of the deployment, saying it could provoke the fighters, who still have their weapons.
Ten thousand Iraqi soldiers and police, backed with tanks, moved into Sadr City early Tuesday in the biggest government effort yet to impose control in the bastion of the Mahdi Army.
On Wednesday, Iraqi forces sought to solidify their hold on the district. The troops assumed a high profile in the streets but appeared to be working delicately to avoid provocations.
Soldiers set up more positions and patrols on the main avenues, sometimes stopping their vehicles to establish a temporary checkpoint — but searches of passers-by were rare. One checkpoint stood near the main office the Sadrist Movement, and a tank was positioned in a nearby square.
On Gayara Street, a main avenue running the length of Sadr City, cars, motorcycles and minibuses were jammed — a stark contrast from recent weeks — and soldiers joined police in directing traffic. Some residents brought water for soldiers, and a nearby market was bustling, with sellers announcing their prices on loudspeakers.
Hussein Qassim reopened his barbershop, located on the front line of the battles, for the first time since a government crackdown on militias in the southern city of Basra in early April triggered the uprising in Sadr City. Nearby buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes, and one was nearly demolished.
“Before the cease-fire, life was impossible,” Qassim said in his shop. “But now my customers have returned like normal.”
The shop is only yards away from a concrete wall that U.S. troops have been erecting across the width of Sadr City, dividing the southern sectors held by the Americans from the bulk of the district.
Residents, while welcoming the Iraqi forces, warned them not to move with a heavy hand.
“There’s one issue the government has to be careful about, and that’s searches of houses,” said Hussein Mohammed, a 35-year-old working at a clothes store near Gayara Street.
“The searches mustn’t be random. They have to follow rules and go by the agreement with the Sadrist Movement,” he said.
The Sadrists appear to have agreed to the truce to prevent further losses in fighting and under influence from Iran, which has ties both to them and to Shiite parties in al-Maliki’s government. Under the truce, the Mahdi Army keeps its light weapons, and the government promised to avoid calling in American troops to help secure the district. No U.S. forces were involved in Tuesday’s deployment.
But if the military acts too assertively to break what has been the Mahdi Army’s unquestioned control of Sadr City, it could spark retaliation. Iraqi military officials have said the next stages of the operation will bring moves to arrest some militants and searches for heavy weapons like mortars, heavy machine guns and explosives. Theinsists it has no heavy weapons in the neighborhood.
While Sadr City itself has seen no violence since troops moved in, clashes involving Shiite militiamen erupted in several of their strongholds nearby in eastern Baghdad early Wednesday. In most, no casualties were reported.
But the U.S. military said it killed 11 Shiite gunmen in the nearby New Baghdad area. It said four heavily armed militants were killed while traveling in a sport utility vehicle, four others were killed because they engaged in suspicious behavior, and three were killed after they were spotted planting two separate roadside bombs.
Lt. Col. Steven Stover, a U.S. military spokesman, said U.S. troops were acting to stem “an increase in extremist activity” in the neighborhood “when everyone was focused on Sadr City.”