Iraqi army seizes Sadr's Baghdad bastion
Some 10,000 Iraqi police and soldiers, backed by tanks, pushed deep into Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Baghdad bastion on Tuesday, stamping the government's authority on an area until now outside its control.
The army said they met no resistance as they moved into Sadr City in the early hours, securing three quarters of the sprawling slum where hundreds have been killed in weeks of fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militants loyal to Sadr.
A truce 10 days ago between Shi'ite factions largely ended the fighting in one of Baghdad's poorest districts and paved the way for Tuesday's operation.
The truce agreement called on gunmen loyal to Sadr to lay down their arms and on the government to restore control over Sadr City.
Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police and columns of military vehicles moved into the suburb in the early hours, past burned-out wrecks of buildings and along rubble-strewn streets.
"We are taking control of three quarters of (Sadr) city. What is left is the final quarter," said a spokesman for Iraqi security forces in Baghdad.
He said around 10,000 police and soldiers were involved.
Fire-blackened and bullet-riddled buildings in the area gave testament to the recent fighting and U.S. air and tank strikes in Sadr City, home to 2 million people.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers stood on corners, flying Iraqi flags, while army vehicles patrolled streets. Black-robed women walked nearby and children played.
MEHDI ARMY STRONGHOLD
Sadr City is the main stronghold of Sadr's Mehdi Army, a militia estimated to number tens of thousands that the U.S. military once called the greatest threat to peace in Iraq.
The operation, on the second anniversary of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's swearing-in, was the first time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that the Iraqi army had pushed so deeply into the area. It previously controlled only the perimeter.
Maliki's government is pushing to extend its control over areas that were under the sway of Shi'ite militias or Sunni Arab insurgents.
The security forces spokesman said Tuesday's operation was coordinated with Sadr's movement to avoid bloodshed and soldiers had cleared more than 100 roadside bombs before going in.
The army intended to set up permanent checkpoints, search for wanted people, disarm insurgents and provide basic services to residents.
"I saw more than 40 Iraqi Humvees (army vehicles) in the major street in my district," said Hamza Hashim, a 53-year-old Sadr City resident.
Iraqi soldiers took over a disused police station while others moved into high buildings and deployed snipers, he said.
Shops and schools in the area were closed, residents said.
A U.S. military spokesman said no American troops were involved and the operation was Iraqi-planned and executed.
A spokesman for Sadr said the army operation had generally been welcomed, despite some "provocations" such as restrictions imposed on vehicle traffic.
One Mehdi Army leader, Abu Ammar, complained about some of the army's actions. "The snipers are above buildings watching. They entered a mosque with their shoes. This is a provocative act. They broke the door and entered. We told them we could open the door for you, but they broke it," he said.
The Mehdi Army staged two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. A government offensive against it in the southern oil port of Basra in March touched off a wave of retaliatory attacks in Baghdad and other cities.
Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst at the International Crisis Group thinktank, doubted Tuesday's operation would succeed in removing the Mehdi Army from Sadr City.
"They'll lie low but they could retake control of the city any time," he told Reuters. "The Sadrists feel weakened, feel threatened and this increases the potential for violence."
Sadr was acquiescing because he did not want an out-and-out confrontation, he said. "The cost to him would be huge."
Separately, Iraq said U.S. President George W. Bush had apologized to Maliki and promised prosecution of a U.S. soldier accused of using a copy of the Koran for target practice.
(with wire sources)
This video is from CNN.com, broadcast May 20, 2008.