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Shiite militants lay low in Baghdad's Sadr City

Markets were crowded and cars packed the streets Wednesday in Baghdad's Sadr City, with no Shiite fighters in sight, a positive  sign in Iraqi forces' bid to impose control in the militia stronghold.
Image: Residents shop in Baghdad's Sadr City
Residents shop in a market in Baghdad's Sadr City after thousands of Iraqi soliders swept into the neighborhood.Kareem Raheem / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Markets were crowded with people and cars packed the streets Wednesday in Baghdad's Sadr City, with no Shiite fighters in sight, a positive early sign in Iraqi forces' bid to impose control in the militia stronghold.

Skirmishes took place in nearby districts — including a clash that the U.S. military said left 11 Shiite gunmen dead — a sign militants were increasing activity elsewhere while peace held in Sadr City.

A force of 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police, backed by tanks, moved into Sadr City early Tuesday in the biggest government effort yet to impose control in the sprawling neighborhood, the bastion of the Mahdi Army, loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The way for the deployment was paved by a truce reached last week with the Mahdi Army, which appeared to be holding as the Iraqi forces sought to solidify their hold.

The Iraqi forces took a high profile in the streets of Sadr City on Wednesday, 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 set up 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.

Many grateful for the calm
Support for al-Sadr is high among the district's 2.5 million residents, nearly half the population of Baghdad. But many seemed relieved by the deployment and the calm it brought after weeks of clashes between Mahdi Army fighters and U.S.-Iraqi troops on the edges of neighborhood and its southern sector.

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 the recent fighting began in early April. Buildings nearby were pockmarked with bullet holes, and one was nearly completely 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 meters (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 neighborhood.

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.

Durability of the truce
Much depends on the durability of the truce. None of the Mahdi Army's black-garbed fighters were 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.

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 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. The Mahdi Army insists it has no heavy weapons in the neighborhood.

Residents, while welcoming the Iraqi force, 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.

Murals and posters of al-Sadr and his father, a revered cleric assassinated in 1999, are ubiquitous in Sadr City, a densely populated 30 square-kilometer grid of avenues and alleyways. Mahdi Army fighters are widely seen by residents as their protectors against Sunni insurgents and the distrusted American forces.

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."

Funds for reconstruction
The 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.

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 Wednesday 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."