Iraqi troops welcomed in Sadr City for first time

BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces entered Baghdad 's Sadr City in large numbers on Tuesday for the first time since followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr agreed two weeks ago to let them in.

No U.S. troops accompanied the Iraqi forces. The agreement specifically barred Americans from entering the Shiite Muslim enclave.

In a symbolic gesture, representatives of Sadr and a group of tribal sheiks met the Iraqi forces with a copy of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, to welcome their presence into the city.

Sadr City was the scene of sharp clashes pitting U.S. troops and Iraqi government forces against Sadr's Mahdi Army militia for nearly two months. Hundreds of people were killed in the clashes, including scores of civilians caught in the crossfire. Hundreds more were wounded.

"The situation now is very quiet in Sadr City, you can find the Iraqi Army in the streets," said Nima Abu Zahra, a spokesman for Sadr in Sadr City. "So far, there's no problem, the Iraqi forces are welcome."

Zahra said two sectors of the city were searched; there was no information on what the troops found.

The agreement was brokered on May 9 and allows Iraqi security forces to enter all of Baghdad 's Sadr City and to arrest anyone found with heavy weapons. It also requires that Mahdi Army followers not be arrested without warrants unless they are in the possession of heavy arms. No U.S. forces were allowed into the neighborhood under the agreement.

"This is entirely an Iraqi-led, planned and executed operation," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, the U.S. military spokesman for Baghdad operations.

Stover said the latest action was a high point for both Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government.

"It shows they are committed to unifying their country, ridding their country of criminal and terrorist elements and they're taking decisive action," Stover said.

Residents said Sadr City had returned to relative normality. Weeks of violence had kept residents inside or forced them to flee. On Tuesday, people were in the streets and shopping, and schools were open.

"With the presence of the Iraqi Army we can say the situation is more stable," said Waleed Hassen, 38.

Several residents commended the presence of Iraqi forces and were happy U.S. troops were not in the area.

"Iraqi soldiers are smiling and saying hi to everybody," said Hamza Sadri, 23. "Our children love the Iraqi soldiers because the children know these soldiers belong to Iraq, not to America."

Residents said that soldiers blanketed the streets and that they expected routine searches of homes to continue.

According to Iraqi Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, the forces that entered Sadr City Tuesday came from the Iraqi Army and National Police.

An advance contingent had gone into the area last week to remove roadside bombs. Atta said they had removed 100 bombs in that operation.

The Iraqi military did not provide a precise number of how many troops had entered Sadr City.

"Iraqi security forces will stay in Sadr City depending on the developments of the security situation in the city," Atta said in a televised press conference Tuesday. "The number of troops is enough to achieve security and stability."

Atta said that the security forces looked for weapons and wanted people. He described Tuesday's activities as the "first phase" of the operation and said three more would follow.

Sadr City is home to more than 2 million residents, and until Tuesday had not been under government control since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003.

The agreement was hailed as a major victory for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who was widely criticized for targeting Sadr's forces, first during a siege of the southern port city of Basra , then in Sadr City .

But fighting continued for nearly a week despite the agreement. On Saturday, Sadr Hospital said they received the bodies of 22 civilians who'd been shot by a sniper. On May 14, six people were killed and 14 others were injured as a result of clashes between U.S-backed Iraqi security forces and militants.

(Ismail reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Jinan Hussein and Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)

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