BAGHDAD — Sweating through their uniforms, Capt. Ed Matthaidess and his men hunted through the heart of this Shiite neighborhood. In 120-degree heat, they spent six hours searching drawers and sewers alike. By the end of the day, their afternoon search had yielded slim pickings: four AK-47s and a tiny green water pistol.
While Matthaidess and his Charlie Company were searching Shula in northwest Baghdad this week, other troops built concrete walls around a Sunni neighborhood to the south. Both actions were part of a stepped-up effort by 12,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops to stem sectarian bloodshed in the capital.
The U.S. military Wednesday announced plans to expand the operation to other neighborhoods of Baghdad.
The Bush administration has said the capital must be brought under control in order to stabilize the rest of Iraq.
During the last year, as U.S. troops have handed over large swaths of Baghdad to Iraqi forces, security has deteriorated and thousands of civilians have been killed.
By rounding up suspects and taking weapons off the streets, American military officials hope to bring the city back under their control.
However, U.S. warnings about the operation appear to have given gunmen ample time to hide their weapons and disappear.
"The hard-core Al Mahdi guys left on the first day," said Matthaidess, of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. He was referring to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia, which U.S. military officials believe is behind many of the kidnappings and extrajudicial executions of Sunni Arabs here.
Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has lately been critical of raids targeting Sadr-affiliated militiamen, frustrating U.S. commanders.
Last week, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki called on the Americans to halt the raids after Iraqi officials said a U.S.-led operation in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad killed three civilians. U.S. officials said one civilian was injured.
A few days later, the Sadraffiliated health minister also spoke out against the U.S. military after a raid on his ministry, which the U.S. believes has been infiltrated by militia members.
At a news conference Wednesday, the top U.S. military spokesman, Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, said any decision on whether to enter Sadr City would be Maliki's.
The Sadr militia fought U.S. troops during the battle of Najaf in 2004. Sadr was on the Americans' most-wanted list before his faction won 30 parliamentary seats in the most recent elections. His support is crucial to Maliki, a fellow Shiite.
To enter a Sadr City office, Matthaidess and his men must first obtain the permission of the commanding general of Baghdad.
"It's frustrating," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kelly, commander of the 1st Battalion, whose men arrived in Baghdad 10 days ago. About 3,800 soldiers with the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team were about to return home to Alaska when they were told to go to the capital from Mosul, adding 120 days to their yearlong deployment.
In northern Iraq, Kelly and his men fought a Sunni nationalist insurgency. In Baghdad's Shula neighborhood, Shiite militias "are the biggest problem," he said.
Many homes in the neighborhood are decorated with posters of Sadr; Al Mahdi members provide aid to widows and struggling families, and they distribute free gasoline. With only a few hours of electricity per day, Iraqis must rely on generators to keep cool. But at $1 per gallon at the pump and $4 on the black market, the fuel for the machines has become prohibitively expensive.
"They are pretty smart about gaining popular support," Kelly said.
Most residents who spoke with troops during a recent patrol praised the militiamen. But a few said they felt caught in the middle of a vicious sectarian war.
"Their goal is to protect the Shiite people, but what happened was the opposite," said a Shiite butcher, referring to Al Mahdi militiamen. "Nobody knows what their goals are."
Asked what would happen if the Americans left, he answered, "Disaster. Big disaster."
U.S. military officials suspect Sunni gangs from the nearby Ghazaliya neighborhood are fighting the militia from Shula.
Caldwell said Wednesday that the security operation had already brought calm to the Dora district, one of the most violent parts of the city.
"All across Baghdad, we're seeing progress," he said.
The hardest-hit areas have received humanitarian and medical aid, he said, adding that street cleaning is also part of the effort.
The installation of concrete blast walls around Amariya is creating "what some may call the semblance of a gated community."
Residents of that neighborhood were unable to leave for three days as Iraqi and U.S. troops cordoned it off and searched homes.