U.S. Troops Push Into Shiite Stronghold , Hundreds Of Soldiers Enter Sadr City In Baghdad Security Sweep

AP) Hundreds of U.S. soldiers entered the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City on Sunday in the first major push into the area since an American-led security sweep began last month around Baghdad.

Soldiers conducted house-to-house searches through the densely populated grid of squat two- and three-story buildings, but met no resistance in a district firmly in the hands of the Mahdi Army militia led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said Lt. Col. David Oclander.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman, told Al-Arabiya television U.S. officials spoke daily with community leaders in Sadr City before entering the stronghold.

“If you go to Sadr City today you will see joint Iraqi and American troops cooperating with the head of the Sadr City council,” Caldwell said in comments translated into Arabic. “There is no problem between the two sides, and we are trying to set up a small security center there.”

Al-Sadr withdrew his militia under intense pressure from the government, but there were worries that a large-scale military push without political clearance could bring a backlash and jeopardize the entire security effort.

“The indication that we are getting is a lot of the really bad folks have gone into hiding,” Oclander said.

Police said there had been U.S. military activity at the al-Jazair police station in Sadr City since Friday, where troops were thought to be converting the facility into a joint operations center. Bulldozers maneuvered in the station’s yard.

U.S. troops, assisted by Iraqi forces, also moved through the Jamila area on the northern edge of Sadr City and sealed off some streets, police said. Last year, U.S. patrols came under frequent attack in Jamila.

A spokesman for Sadr’s bloc in parliament, Falah Hassan, said there was “no reason” for such a “provocative act.”

“We understood that Iraqi forces only would conduct the search and if that they faced resistance, then U.S. forces could intervene,” he said. “But that was not the case with today’s operation.”

Sadr City presents one of the most difficult steps in the security sweeps that began Feb. 14.

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