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SECURITY CRACKDOWN WIDENS TO SHIITE SLUM

Times Staff Writer

Just after 8 a.m. Sunday, U.S. and Iraqi troops tapped on Saif Mirwan’s front gate in the Shiite Muslim stronghold of Sadr City and politely asked to search his house. They looked in each room, asked how his family was doing, checked out the pigeons he keeps on his roof and then left with handshakes and a thank you.

With that, Sadr City, whose fearsome reputation and political clout had rendered it largely off-limits to U.S. and Iraqi government troops for nearly three years, became an official part of the latest U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown.

In the first daylight door-to-door weapons searches here since the crackdown began, there was none of the bloodshed that had greeted American troops the last time they tried to police the district in the spring of 2004.

But the limited raid, in the Jamila section of the sprawling slum, also raised the question of how long things will stay quiet, given anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s opposition to foreign troops. The cleric’s Al Mahdi militia took control of Sadr City’s streets after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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More than 600 U.S. soldiers and 550 Iraqi troops, backed by a column of armored vehicles, took part in Sunday’s operation, described as a first step toward establishing a permanent U.S.-Iraqi security station within Sadr City.

Military officials say these stations will foster trust between residents and troops and will form the backbone of the security plan, which is seen as a last-ditch effort to quell sectarian warfare between Sunni Arabs and Shiites, fueled in large part by execution-style killings attributed to Shiite militias that include Al Mahdi forces.

At least 15 stations have been established in other neighborhoods of Baghdad, according to the U.S. military, and several more are planned. Those in Sunni neighborhoods are aimed at subduing the Sunni-led insurgency, which has used bombings, roadside explosives and sniper attacks to kill American troops and spread terror among the Shiite majority.

Setting up in Sadr City, which is named for Sadr’s late father, a revered cleric, is a tricky maneuver because Sadr is politically influential with fellow Shiites, including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The troops arriving Sunday participated in what they termed a “soft-knock” operation, clearly aware that one wrong move could stoke anger among supporters of Sadr. The troops avoided pounding on doors and, according to people whose homes were searched, were unfailingly polite and observant of Muslim sensibilities.

“They thanked us with respect and a smile,” said Shihab Ahmed, a teacher, noting that the Americans greeted him in Arabic and asked permission before entering his house with a bomb-sniffing dog. “I am happy that such a campaign is done in my neighborhood. It doesn’t upset me, as it is aiming to clear the area of weapons.”

Mirwan said troops came into his home only after ensuring that his mother and sister would not be disturbed.

“One of the Americans asked my brother about his classes and how school is, and they also asked my father if he was doing OK and how was his health,” Mirwan said. “I didn’t hear any gunshots, nor did we hear about any clashes.”

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In a few hours, the operation was over for the day. A checkpoint was dismantled, allowing traffic to move normally. The convoy left, and shopkeepers returned to business as usual.

Still unclear is what will happen when troops return to establish a permanent presence, and how long Sadr will keep a lid on his militia, which battled American forces in 2004.

The cleric pulled his militiamen off the streets as a favor to Maliki when the security plan officially was launched Feb. 13. But Sadr’s impatience with the plan has grown as attacks on Shiites by Sunni Arab insurgents have soared in recent days. On Saturday, Sadr issued a statement through associates rejecting statements made in the last week by U.S. and Iraqi government officials that negotiations had cleared the way for a government security station in Sadr City.

Some analysts believe Sadr will keep his troops at bay -- at least for the time being.

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“It’s very clear Sadr’s policy is to absorb the initial punch of the surge, not to engage the Americans, not to give them an excuse to focus on the Shiites,” said Vali Nasr, an expert on Iraq and on the Sunni-Shiite conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

But as U.S. troops continue to hand over security functions to Iraqi forces in coming months, Nasr said, Sadr will be well positioned to revive his Al Mahdi army, which most Shiites consider far more capable than Iraqi forces of protecting them. Maliki will have to support him in exchange for his cooperation with the security plan, and his loyalists will embrace the return of his bullying but effective militiamen, Nasr predicted.

“He won’t sacrifice his Mahdi army. He’ll just mothball it,” he said.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, violence continued. Police said that since Saturday, they had found 20 bodies of men who were believed to be victims of Shiite death squads. At least three Iraqi civilians died in bombings.

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One car bomb exploded near an Iraqi police patrol in Dora, a troubled Sunni area in south Baghdad, and killed one civilian. Another Iraqi died when a bomb exploded in the Shiite district of Karada, and a third was killed when a blast hit near a downtown bank.

South of the city, three women and one child were killed when a bomb targeting a U.S. military convoy exploded. The victims were inside a minibus that took a direct hit from the blast.

Also Sunday, a group linked to Al Qaeda released a video purporting to show the execution of 18 Diyala province police officers that the group claimed to have abducted and killed Friday.

The authenticity of the video, which showed 18 blindfolded men being gunned down, could not be confirmed. The group, calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq, said it had kidnapped the men to avenge the reported rape of a Sunni woman by other Shiite policemen elsewhere in Iraq last month.

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In the southern city of Basra, British and Iraqi forces raided a government detention center, prompting an angry response from the national government in Baghdad. A British military spokesman, Maj. David Gell, said troops found “evidence of torture” at the center, but would not give details.

But Maliki late Sunday ordered an investigation of the operation, which he called “irresponsible and illegitimate.”

It was the second time since December that British and Iraqi forces had targeted a detention center in Basra. On Christmas Day, they destroyed a police facility where detainees allegedly were tortured.

Gell said Iraqi forces led Sunday’s raid based on tips from people arrested in previous operations.

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Such raids are an embarrassment to Maliki and bolster Sunni claims that his mainly Shiite security forces are havens for militiamen and thugs.

susman@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Saif Rasheed and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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