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Truce brings signs of calm in Sadr City

Streets were packed with cars and shoppers. But not far away, skirmishes broke out.

BAGHDAD - With not a Shiite fighter in sight, shoppers crowded 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 following 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 Shiite gunmen.

Support for anti-U.S. Shiite 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 American forces.

Yesterday, however, people 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.

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."

The Iraqi 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.

Success in Sadr City would be a boost to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government aims to show it can extend its authority over parts of Iraq long under armed groups' control. Much depends on the durability of a truce reached last week between the government and the Mahdi Army.

None of the black-garbed fighters was seen on the streets yesterday, 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.

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. Yesterday, Iraqi forces sought to solidify their hold on the district.

Soldiers set up more positions and patrols on the main avenues, sometimes stopping their vehicles to establish a temporary checkpoint, but searches of passers-by were rare.

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," Qassim said. "But now my customers have returned like normal."

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 to Shiite parties in Maliki's government. Iraqi officials say the next stages of the operation will be to arrest some militants and begin searches for heavy weapons and explosives.

While Sadr City stayed calm yesterday, clashes erupted elsewhere. The U.S. military said it killed 11 Shiite gunmen 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 roadside bombs.

Petraeus: Iraq Helps Curb Iran



presence in Iraq is more likely to blunt, rather than inflame, Iran's growing influence in the region, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus says.


who is to become commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said the U.S. must work on developing more leverage - primarily diplomatic or economic - to pressure Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.

But the U.S.

must retain military-strike options as a "last resort," he said

in a question-and-answer document released before his confirmation hearing today.

Last month,

President Bush picked Petraeus,

a four-star general, to replace Navy Adm. William J. Fallon as chief of U.S. Central Command. The command area includes Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon,

meanwhile, announced that NATO countries fighting to keep the Taliban at bay in Afghanistan agreed

to longer command rotations - from nine months to one year - in the southern part of that country.

The agreement

resolves for now a debate about how to improve continuity of command in the 47,000-member

NATO force.

- Inquirer wire services