Baghdad sweep meets little resistence

Updated: 2007-02-15 08:38

Conflicting reports, meanwhile, emerged about al-Sadr's whereabouts. The chief US military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, said the cleric had left the country and was believed to be in Iran, but al-Sadr's supporters insisted he was still in Iraq. Al-Sadr commands a following of tens of thousands, and his influence could sway the delicate political balance in Baghdad.

Underscoring the dangers as the US steps up its presence in the capital, Entifadh Qanbar, the uncle of a kidnapped Iraqi-American soldier, said a Shiite militant group had released a video to prove the missing soldier was alive. The US government has offered a $50,000 reward leading to the recovery of Iraqi-born American Army translator Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a 41-year-old reserve soldier who was abducted by gunmen on Oct. 23.

The operation in the northeastern Baghdad was expected to take several days before troops from the 82nd Airborne Division move in with Iraqi forces to occupy the area, one of 10 districts being targeted by the military action aimed at stopping the violence that has threatened to tear the country apart. President Bush has committed 21,500 more Americans to a force that is expected to involve a total of 90,000 Iraqi and US soldiers.

But Baghdad residents had seen little evidence of the new measures until Wednesday, a day after the Iraqi commander, Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, announced that Iraq will close its borders with Syria and Iran and ordered the return of unlawfully seized homes as part of the drive to end the violence that has threatened to divide the capital along sectarian lines.

Staff Sgt. Michael James, 32, of Chillicothe, Mo., said the area in northeastern Baghdad had been targeted before but not in such force.

"This is the final clearing. We're trying to hit all the major hotspots. I don't think it has ever been cleared as fully as it will be today," said James, of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

James said he wasn't surprised that the troops did find more as they hunkered down in a so-called Joint Security Station in the area for the night.

"It's never clear. These guys are going to have safe-houses all over the place. Whenever we come into one area, I'm sure they just move on," he said. "Just our presence alone is enough to push the bad guys out. They're not stupid enough to fight an entire battalion, because they will lose."

Senior military officers also appeared throughout the area to explain the operation to the Iraqis as the troops papered car windows and building facades with purple stickers listing telephone numbers and an e-mail address where they can send intelligence tips.

Bestoon Abdul Kadder, 23, an aspiring pop artist, was pessimistic about the Iraqis' ability to overcome the violence.

"Iraqi people are so bad. They just do not want to work together. I think it'll take 10 years before things will change," he said in English.

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."


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