10,000 Iraqi troops swarm Sadr City
Trying to get control of militia enclave
BAGHDAD - Some 10,000 Iraqi troops fanned out in Baghdad's Sadr City yesterday, taking positions on main roads, rooftops, and near hospitals in an attempt to establish government control in the Shi'ite militia enclave for the first time since Saddam Hussein's ouster.
Success relies on whether a truce holds with fighters loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The large force in tanks and Humvees and on foot met no resistance from Sadr's Mahdi Army militia as it rolled into the sprawling district.
The Iraqi soldiers and police passed burned-out shops and buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, signs of years of clashes. But many stores were open, and some residents came out to greet them. Some Mahdi Army fighters passed out copies of the Koran to the soldiers as a sign of good will.
It was a stark contrast to a government offensive against Shi'ite militias in the southern city of Basra launched in late March. That assault sparked a wave of Mahdi Army violence across the south and in Sadr City. Fighting in the south was eased by a cease-fire deal in mid-April, brokered by Iran, which has ties to both Sadr and the government.
Yesterday's deployment was paved by a separate truce reached last week.
Under the deal, militiamen promise not to attack residential areas or the Green Zone, but they refuse to give up their light weapons. Iraqi forces promised to try to refrain from seeking American help to restore order. US military officials said they would follow the Iraqis' lead, and no American forces were involved in yesterday's deployment.
The move, code-named "Operation Peace," is the latest by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to impose government authority in areas controlled by armed groups. Besides the Basra offensive, an ongoing sweep launched a week ago in the northern city of Mosul aims to uproot Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents.
But the fragile truce's survival could depend on how forcefully the troops try to reduce the Mahdi Army's long-unquestioned domination of Sadr City, home to 2 million Shi'ites.
Already, Sadr supporters were complaining of the heavy deployment.
"We were surprised by the size of the force," said Sheik Salman al-Freiji, director of the Sadr Movement office in the district. "But their entry in such size has sparked fears that there could be violations of mosques and homes. There must be respect."
"We are attempting to maintain restraint, so there is no retaliation," Freiji said. "This force is bigger than we expected, with tanks, and it could be a provocation."
The next stages of the operation, which includes plans to arrest some militia suspects, could indeed spark retaliation. In the past, some rogue Mahdi Army fighters have continued violence even after the leaders have called for a halt.
Iraqi commanders also intend to search for heavy weapons such as large mortars, rockets, and ordnance that could be used in roadside bombs - though not lighter weapons. The Mahdi Army claims it does not have any heavy weapons in Sadr City.
There is also the danger that Shi'ite fighters could move elsewhere in Baghdad to operate. Iraqi troops found a large weapons cache Monday on the grounds of a mosque in the Shaab district, neighboring Sadr City, the US military said. The find included eight armor-piercing roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, which the US says Iran provides to Shi'ite militants for attacks on Americans. Iran denies the claim.
Throughout the day, the Iraqi force spread out across most of Sadr City, a 12-square-mile grid of avenues laid over a maze of tiny alleys.
The troops set up checkpoints on main roads, took positions on rooftops and near hospitals, and began Humvee patrols. A tank was stationed about 20 yards from the main Sadr Movement office.
"The government chose the approach of preventing bloodshed, and entered the city to coordinate with the representatives of the Sadr movement," said the Iraqi military spokesman, Brigadier General Qassim al-Moussawi.
It was the most widespread Iraqi military presence in Sadr City in years. The district in northeast Baghdad fell under the control of Sadr soon after the 2003 fall of Hussein - when the district was renamed from Saddam City to Sadr City, after Sadr's father, a revered cleric who was assassinated in 1999.
The district erupted into major violence during two nationwide revolts by the Sadr movement in 2004, and has been a constant scene of clashes between militiamen and allied Iraqi and US troops.