Baghdad sweep meets little resistence

Updated: 2007-02-15 08:38

AGHDAD, Iraq - Thousands of US troops swept house-to-house through mostly Shiite areas virtually unopposed Wednesday in the opening phase of the long-awaited Baghdad security crackdown. But four US soldiers were killed outside of the capital in an area not covered by the operation.

US soldiers from the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment of the Second infantry Division search an Iraqi home in the Shaab neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraq Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007. [AP]

Elsewhere in Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers and police set up new checkpoints across the city of 6 million people, snarling traffic and forcing people to walk across bridges jammed with cars and trucks.

The US military said 14 suspects were detained and four weapons caches discovered during the day's operation - seemingly a low tally. But US officials say they are more concerned about establishing a long-term presence in the areas so that the public will gain confidence in security forces to protect them.

Outside the capital, fighting continued.

The military said four US soldiers were killed Wednesday in an explosion in Diyala province, among six new US deaths announced by the military. US officers have expressed concern that insurgents and militias are leaving Baghdad to transfer the fight to Diyala and other provinces that border the capital.

Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, warned that advance publicity on the security operation had given Shiite militias time to flee the city for bases elsewhere in the country.

"I have information that numerous of their leaders are now in Basra and other southern provinces in safe havens," he told Al-Arabiya television. "I believe that those who were behind the bloodshed and the chaos should be pursued and criminals must face justice."

At least 38 Iraqis also were killed or found dead nationwide, including four civilians who died when a parked car bomb struck a predominantly Shiite district in central Baghdad. Only five bullet-riddled bodies were found on the streets of the capital, an unusually low number of apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads mainly run by Shiite militias that have killed thousands in the past year.

The Baghdad neighborhoods targeted by the Americans - Shaab, Ur and Baida - lie north of the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City, which had been off-limits until Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lifted his protection of the notorious Mahdi Army, the largest Shiite militia.

Last year, US soldiers came under intense sniper fire in those neighborhoods from Mahdi Army militiamen who were expanding into Shiite areas outside Sadr City.

This time, however, Iraqis watched in curiosity as some 2,500-3,000 troops - or an entire Stryker brigade - fanned out in the area, going house-to-house looking for weapons or suspected militia fighters as part of what it called "Operation Law and Order."

The increased security measures drew a mixed response from Iraqis - some angry over the inconvenience, others embracing any effort to stop the rampant violence.

"My friends and I who are the old women of the neighborhood went to the soldiers and welcomed them and prayed that God would help them to defeat the terrorists," said Um Sabah of the Mashtaal area in eastern Baghdad. "Although, the presence of army and vehicles is not very comfortable, we welcome it because it is for the sake of Iraq."

There was little if any resistance. Soldiers even teased one young girl about her taste in music after they found her doing homework on a couch, wearing white and pink socks with a poster of Shakira on the wall.

Some people left their doors open as the troops arrived, and little evidence of hostilities turned up other than some pictures of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an illegal bolt action rifle and a heavyset man watching an insurgent propaganda video that he said had appeared while he was channel surfing.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, is an ally of al-Sadr, and his failure to confront the sectarian violence carried out by the cleric's Mahdi militia had been partly blamed for the failure of two previous security operations. But the prime minister has promised not to let politics interfere with the current crackdown.

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