BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s army moved on Tuesday to take control of Baghdad’s Sadr City, power base of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in another step to stamp government authority over areas previously outside its control.
A spokesman for Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, Major-General Qassim Moussawi, said soldiers had launched “Operation Peace” in the sprawling eastern Baghdad slum early on Tuesday.
Iraqi soldiers, who previously controlled only the outer perimeter of Sadr City, advanced deep into the poor suburb, home to 2 million people, without meeting any opposition, he said. “We are taking control of three-quarters of the city. What is left is the final quarter,” he said, referring to an area where Iraqi security forces had previously ventured only rarely.
The Iraqi army’s goals were to arrest wanted men, disarm insurgents and provide basic services to residents, he said.
The army also aimed to set up permanent checkpoints to maintain security, he said. Checkpoints would make it hard for militia members to move around.
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 Mehdi Army staged two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. It has been battling Iraqi and U.S. forces in Sadr City since late March, when a government offensive against its operations in the oil port of Basra touched off a wave of retaliatory attacks in Baghdad and other cities.
Iraq’s ruling Shi’ite alliance and Sadr’s opposition movement in parliament reached an agreement this month to end the fighting in Sadr City, in which hundreds have died.
The agreement called on gunmen loyal to Sadr to lay down their arms, and on the government to restore control over Sadr City. Sporadic clashes between Shi’ite militiamen and security forces in the area persisted, however.
Zaineb Kareem, a legislator from the Sadr movement, welcomed the army operation. “We supported the agreement from the beginning. All the citizens and Sadrists are ready to welcome the Iraqi forces and their entry, but with no violation against people or their honour.” She said people who previously feared the Iraqi security forces were starting to trust them. “Today they entered the city. Let us wait and see what will happen but, if God wills, things will be as the two sides want,” she said.
U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover said no American troops were involved in the operation, which he said was Iraqi-planned and -executed.
The operation — on the second anniversary of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s swearing-in — marks the latest step by the government to extend control over areas of Iraq that were under the sway of Shi’ite militias or Sunni Arab insurgents.
Maliki personally oversaw the offensive against Shi’ite militias in Basra, which is now under Iraqi army control, and earlier this month he flew to Mosul in the north as his forces launched a push against the Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
Residents said the Iraqi army had moved into Sadr City in the early hours.
“I saw more than 40 Iraqi Humvees (army vehicles) in the major street in my district,” said 53-year-old Hamza Hashim.
Iraqi soldiers took over a disused police station in his district, while others moved into high buildings and deployed snipers, he said.
A health official resident in Sadr City, who asked not to be named, said no one had fired at the army and the district was quiet. Shops and schools were closed, residents said.
Political analysts said the operation was aimed at disarming Sadr’s Mehdi army in line with the truce agreement.
“It is a positive operation to get rid of the gunmen … Any militia should be disbanded. We can’t have militias beside the state military army,” said Kadhum al-Muqdadi, a Baghdad University professor.
Washington has blamed much of the violence in Sadr City on rogue elements of the Mehdi Army. It says these groups are armed, trained and funded by Iran, an allegation denied by Iran.