DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. American troops went into the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad today. The move on the Shiite district is the most sensitive operation since U.S. and Iraqi forces launched their security crackdown last month.
It's the first time since 2003 that American forces have established a presence in Sadr City. The neighborhood was the launching ground for attacks on U.S. forces by the militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric. NPR's Soraya Sahaddi-Nelson joins us from Baghdad to discuss the developments. Soraya, have the American troops actually moved into neighborhoods in Sadr City?
SORAYA SAHADDI-NELSON: Yes, they are reporting that they went in today, and along with Iraqi police and Iraqi soldiers conducted what they describe as soft searches. In other words, they're knocking on people's doors. They're not bursting in. And the search has netted nothing, however. They did not find any weapons or any of the people that they had been looking for from the Mehdi Army.
ELLIOTT: What is the U.S. military hoping to accomplish with these soft searches?
SAHADDI-NELSON: Well, for one, they want to try and establish security and replace the militias in terms of providing that security. They're trying to show that they are not just isolated on bases but that in fact they are involved in the communities.
At the same time, they're trying to show that they are even-handed in their approach to the security crackdown that's been going on since mid-February. They want to show that they're not just targeting Sunni neighborhoods, as many Sunni politicians have complained, but that in fact they are going after Shiite groups as well.
ELLIOTT: Now, isn't this the same neighborhood that the Iraqi government in the past has prevented U.S. forces from entering?
SAHADDI-NELSON: Yes, they have in fact prevented them in the past, and part of that is because the prime minister, his support comes from Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi militia, and so there's been a lot of sensitivity in terms of having the U.S. forces go into an area that is controlled by Sadr and his forces.
ELLIOTT: What have Sadr City residents had to say about today's U.S. actions?
SAHADDI-NELSON: Well, the U.S. military says that they've been cooperative with today's search, and they've also been somewhat eager to have the Americans and Iraqis come in, because I think they're quite tired of having security issues like they are having. Not to mention that the Mehdi militia, while there are members who in fact have been doing social services inside the city, there are also others who have bullying and committing crimes and violence.
ELLIOTT: Has there been any word from Moqtada al-Sadr himself?
SAHADDI-NELSON: No, there hasn't. He's been pretty much in hiding for the last few weeks, since the security crackdown was announced. He did, a week ago, come out with a statement that basically condemned American forces and the actions they've had or made in Iraq, but he has not himself said anything about this operation in particular.
ELLIOTT: And what about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Has he weighed in?
SAHADDI-NELSON: Yes, he has made it very clear in recent weeks that everyone needs to cooperate with this. He's been very cautious not to openly criticize al-Sadr, and by extension the Mehdi militia, because they are backers of his faction. But at the same time, his entire government's survival is at stake. He needs to have security; otherwise his government could fall.
ELLIOTT: NPR's Soraya Sahaddi-Nelson in Baghdad. Thank you.
SAHADDI-NELSON: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.