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Weapons fall silent for Sadr City truce

U.S. and Iraqi forces say they will still respond to any attacks. Many doubt the weeks of fighting are over.

May 12, 2008|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Fighting ebbed and residents emerged from their homes as a deal to halt fighting took effect Sunday in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum that has been the focus of ongoing clashes pitting U.S. and Iraqi forces against militiamen loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr.

But after more than seven weeks of bloodshed, officials and residents alike were cautious about declaring the hostilities over.

Ali Radi, a car mechanic who moved his wife and children out of the neighborhood for safety, said occasional explosions and bursts of gunfire kept him awake all night

"Each side is laughing at the other, and we are the victim," he said glumly.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said they were limiting operations Sunday to give the agreement negotiated by Shiite political factions, and endorsed by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a chance to take hold. But they warned that they would continue to respond to any attacks.

"This agreement really doesn't change anything for us," said Lt. Col. Steven Stover, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad. "If we see criminal activity -- a guy with rockets, mortars or planting an IED [improvised explosive device] -- we will kill him."

Despite the intermittent crackle of automatic-weapons fire, residents said clashes appeared less intense than in previous days. Officials at two hospitals said they had received six people with wounds since Saturday night, and a child had died of injuries suffered earlier that day.

"Things are much better than yesterday," said Ameer Zabour, a civil servant who fled the recent fighting, but returned Sunday to see if the truce was taking effect. "I am optimistic that the cease-fire will continue and bring good results, as long as the American forces stay out of it." The U.S. military said it killed a gunman who attacked its soldiers. And in the worst-hit sections of Sadr City, businesses remained shuttered along main roads, which residents said were laced with bombs.

But some stores opened again in side streets. Shoppers crowded a market where fresh fruit and vegetables were available, and municipal workers were out repairing electricity lines.

As attack helicopters circled overhead, members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia kept watch from the district's narrow alleys but did not display their weapons.

Many militiamen were taken by surprise when the deal was announced, and some were less than enthusiastic.

"It sounds like a game," said one fighter, who asked not to be identified. "I don't think Sayid Muqtada would go along with this. So for now, we are following the events carefully and waiting for his instructions."

U.S. and Iraqi troops have clashed daily with the cleric's followers in Sadr City and elsewhere since late March, when the government began a crackdown on private armies that was focused on the Mahdi Army militia. Hundreds have been killed in the fighting, many of them civilians.

Sadr's followers complain that they have been unfairly singled out, saying factions within Maliki's governing coalition are allowed to maintain armed wings. They accuse their Shiite rivals of using the crackdown to weaken Sadr's movement before Oct. 1 provincial elections.

U.S. and Iraqi forces moved into the southeastern section of Sadr City in an attempt to curb the barrage of rocket and mortar fire aimed at the Green Zone, the fortified enclave that houses the U.S. Embassy and many Iraqi government offices. More than 1,000 shells have been fired in Baghdad since late March, most of them from that part of Sadr City, the U.S. military said Sunday.

Lawmakers loyal to Maliki hope that the deal hammered out Saturday will pave the way for government forces to move into the rest of Sadr City, which remains under the control of the Mahdi Army militia, said Sami Askari, a member of Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party.

The agreement calls for a four-day halt to hostilities, during which the government wants Mahdi Army fighters to help it rid the area of unexploded bombs. Government troops will then be allowed to pursue wanted fighters, provided the troops have a warrant.

But differences remain over the role of U.S. troops; Sadr's followers want them barred from the neighborhood. The government is also insisting that the militia surrender medium- and heavy-grade arms -- weapons Sadr's representatives say they do not have.

Lawmakers from both sides met again Sunday to iron out details, but Askari said there would probably be many more meetings before a final resolution is reached.

"I think this is a step forward, but it is not the end of the road," he said, adding that ultimately the militia must be disbanded.

In other developments, the U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers. One was killed by a roadside bomb Sunday in northwestern Baghdad and the other in a vehicle rollover Saturday near Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province.

At least 4,076 U.S. personnel have been killed since the Iraq war began in 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed, Usama Redha and a special correspondent in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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