Thousands of Iraqi troops pushed deep into Baghdad’s Shiite stronghold of Sadr City on Tuesday, in an attempt to stamp government authority on areas previously outside its control.
Soldiers moved into the sprawling slum, power base of Muqtada al-Sadr, in the early hours, securing most of the suburb in an operation that an army spokesman said had been coordinated with the anti-U.S. cleric's movement to avoid bloodshed.
Troops took up positions on street corners and deploying on rooftops as Iraqi Humvees patrolled the streets, residents said.
The move is the strongest attempt yet by the government to impose control over the district, which has long been the unquestioned bastion the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to al-Sadr. Iraqi and U.S. troops have in the past largely stayed on the neighborhood's edges.
The district erupted into violence in early April after an Iraqi offensive against Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra, and for weeks has been the scene of skirmishes between militiamen and U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the troops were deploying in Sadr City as part of a fragile truce reached last week between al-Sadr and the government. So far, there has been no violence in the deployment, codenamed "Operation Peace," he said.
"The government chose the approach of preventing bloodshed, and entered the city to coordinate with the representatives of the Sadr movement, to achieve stability and security, impose the rule of law and offer service," he told reporters in Baghdad.
Al-Moussawi said three brigades with about 10,000 troops were involved in the deployment. He and the U.S. military said American troops were participating, though al-Moussawi said U.S. forces were nearby in case their support was needed.
The Iraqi forces in vehicles and on foot moved into Sadr City and down streets with burned out shops and buildings pockmarked with gunfire — signs of the years of violence and clashes with U.S.-Iraqi forces that have plagued the district of some 2 million people.
Iraqi soldiers also found a large weapons cache on the grounds of the Shaaroofi mosque Monday in the Shaab district, a Shiite militia stronghold that is adjacent to Sadr City, according to a U.S. military statement.
The find included eight armor-piercing roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, seven rocket-propelled grenades as well as other munitions and documents detailing kidnappings and murders, the military said.
The military said U.S. soldiers did not deploy around the mosque to avoid offending Islamic sensitivities.
Series of crackdowns
The Sadr City operation is the latest by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki aimed at imposing control over areas dominated by armed groups. Besides the April sweep in Basra, Iraqi forces have been conducting a crackdown for more than a week in the northern city of Mosul, aimed at uprooting al-Qaida in Iraq fighters and other Sunni insurgents.
Late Monday, gunmen suspected of being al-Qaida fighters ambushed a minibus carrying Iraqi police recruits near the Syrian border west of Mosul, killing all 11 passengers, Iraqi officials said — the first deadly attack since the Mosul sweep began.
The attack, one of the bloodiest in months against police, left the minibus riddled with bullets in the desert west of Mosul near the town of Baaj, 20 miles from the Syrian border, according to a provincial official in Baaj and a Mosul police officer. Some al-Qaida fighters are believed to have fled the city toward neighboring Syria.
The unarmed policemen, most from Baaj, were returning from their recruitment camp, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to to talk to the press.