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Sadr City gets a break; fighting goes next door

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

BAGHDAD - With not a Shi´ite fighter in sight, shoppers pushed through markets and cars packed the streets in Baghdad´s Sadr City yesterday - a positive early sign for Iraqi forces in their bid to impose control after 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 Shi´ite gunmen.

Support for anti-U.S. Shi´ite cleric Muqtada al Sadr is 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 U.S.-led forces.

People yesterday, however, 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.

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.

Iraqi forces yesterday sought to solidify their hold on the district.

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.

"Before the cease-fire, life was impossible," Mr. Qassim said in his shop. "But now my customers have returned like normal."

Although Sadr City itself has seen no violence since troops moved in, clashes involving Shi´ite militiamen erupted in several of their strongholds nearby in eastern Baghdad yesterday. In most, no casualties were reported.

But the U.S. military said it killed 11 Shi´ite gunmen in the nearby New Baghdad area. It said four heavily armed militants were killed while riding 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."