BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi troops sweeping through the Baghdad stronghold of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have found large quantities of weapons, including helicopter missiles and an anti-aircraft gun, the U.S military said on Saturday.
Some 10,000 Iraqi government troops entered the sprawling slum of Sadr City unopposed on May 20 under a truce between Sadr’s supporters and ruling Shi’ite political parties that ended weeks of fighting in which hundreds were killed.
A U.S. military statement itemising the weapons seized in the last three weeks gave the first real glimpse of the formidable arsenal that Sadr’s feared Mehdi Army militia has been building up. The statement said government forces had seized 100 caches of weapons, including 295 mortar rounds, 367 AK-47s, 109 anti-tank mines, 39 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, an anti-aircraft gun, six helicopter rockets, sniper rifles, improvised explosive devices, 123 grenades and artillery shells.
Sadr City, a bastion of Sadr’s Mehdi Army, had been off-limits to U.S. and Iraqi forces since the fall of Saddam Hussein in the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But under the truce agreed earlier in May, the Mehdi Army agreed to lay down their weapons and allow Iraqi forces to enter the slum. The militia, while vowing not to hand over their heavy weapons, has melted away.
U.S. military officials say the Mehdi Army, which staged two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, fuelled sectarian violence between majority Shi’ite Muslims and Sunni Arabs in 2006 and 2007 that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
The Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki says it is trying to assert its authority over areas previously outside its control. Sadr supporters accuse it of trying to weaken them ahead of provincial elections due in October.