Iraqi Army Secures Sadr City

Iraqi government forces have moved into the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad. The operation was launched after an agreement was reached between the government and supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr loyalists have battled the Iraqi army off and on for the past seven weeks.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

President Bush has apologized to the Iraqi prime minister for an incident in which a U.S. soldier shot up a Koran for target practice. Mr. Bush phoned Nouri al-Maliki yesterday. The White House says he told the prime minister the soldier has been reprimanded and removed from Iraq.

In other news for Baghdad, today, the Iraqi Army sent helicopters, tanks and thousands of soldiers deep into the Shiite slum of Sadr City. For nearly two months, there's been heavy fighting there between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But a cease-fire was announced a week ago.

And as NPR's Katia Dunn reports, the Iraqi Army is now trying to secure the area.

KATIA DUNN: Outside the main entrance to Sadr City this afternoon, Iraqi soldiers stood casually by their tanks as thousands of people shuffled by. Since residents aren't allowed to drive through this checkpoint, people mostly walk over a bridge here to get in and out of the area. At 5 o'clock this morning, the Iraqi Army sent seven convoys in to secure this neighborhood of more than 2 million people. The troops met little resistance.

Haji Salman(ph), a day laborer, says he woke up to the sight of hundreds of tanks and vehicles filled with soldiers outside his front door.

Mr. HAJI SALMAN: (Through translator) We feel safe with them. The Iraqi Army is from our people, so they belong to us, and we belong to them.

DUNN: Sadr City is one of the poorest areas in Baghdad, so crowded that people live nearly on top of each other. U.S. and Iraqi forces battled Shiite militias here for seven weeks. American forces were instrumental in securing the lower third of the area, but today, it was only Iraqi forces that pushed in to secure the remaining two-thirds of the neighborhood.

Far Han(ph) is a Sadr City resident and the principal at a local school.

Mr. FAR HAN: (Through translator) Iraqi forces are much better. Whenever we see American tanks, we feel unsafe, but when we encounter Iraqi tanks, we say hello, and they say hello, and we feel safe.

DUNN: This morning at a press conference, Iraqi Army spokesman Major-General Qassim Moussawi laid out the army's plans for Sadr City.

Major-General QASSIM MOUSSAWI (Spokesman, Iraqi Army): (Through translator) The government has chosen to end the bloodshed. We went into Sadr City with the agreement of Moqtada al-Sadr's supporters. We plan to achieve security and stability, and provide services in the area.

DUNN: Moussawi said that it took only one hour today for Iraqi forces to establish key positions inside Sadr City. He said soldiers have removed 100 roadside bombs, although there are likely thousands more. But militiamen from Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army have disappeared from the streets.

Katia Dunn, NPR News, Baghdad.

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