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IRAQ: A scarred district gives a wary welcome to Iraqi soldiers

Sadr_city_3

Raheem_3 By Raheem Salman in Baghdad

Iraqi soldiers pushed deep into Sadr City without resistance today, and I went to see how the operation was going.

I entered from the west side, near the 3-mile-long wall erected by U.S. forces to prevent militiamen loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr from using the southern portion of the vast Baghdad slum to shell the Green Zone and other targets.

As I moved into the neighborhood, the destruction from weeks of fighting was horrible. Most of the shops and kiosks have been damaged. Doors are knocked off their hinges. Windows are shattered. The walls are riddled with bullet holes. Some buildings are blown apart by missile fire.

Close to the wall, some young men were cleaning out the debris from their charred shops. Meters away, a funeral was under way for a man who was killed by a sniper's bullet on May 17. He was on his way home from work, the shopkeepers told me. As he turned into the alley where he lives, he was shot dead.

"This is one of the acts of our army," declared Ahmed Jarallah, who sells construction material. "Why? What did he do to deserve that? His three kids are orphans now. ... I don't believe that peace and tranquility will prevail."

As we were talking, we heard the crack of bullets very close to us -- about six or seven shots. We ducked inside one of the damaged buildings. When the shooting stopped, we came out and saw an Iraqi soldier kneeling and aiming his gun toward the end of the street. Maybe he mistook us as fighters. Militiamen have often shot at U.S. and Iraqi troops from the buildings in this section.

"Those are the kind of soldiers we are talking about," said another shopkeeper, who asked to be identified by a traditional nickname, Abu Ali. "Such behavior will create a problem. Either someone will be killed for nothing ... or maybe some young men will return fire at the army."

As I went deeper in Sadr City, however, residents expressed relief at the sight of Iraqi soldiers in streets that have been the almost exclusive preserve of Sadr's militiamen. The troops met no resistance as they fanned out through the neighborhood.

"Deployment of the Iraqi army makes us feel safer and happy," said Salah Saadi, a university student. "Nothing good comes to the population from days of violence."

He described the recent fighting as a confrontation "among brothers."

"We were all losing," he said.

Soldiers deployed in the streets and alleys said that residents had welcomed them with offers of water, yogurt and food.

While some residents were clearly fearful of the militiamen still in their midst, one officer said, "Some elderly people whispered to us that they are happy with our presence, as their city will be peaceful."

Read more about the Sadr City crackdown.

Photo: Residents survey the damage May 20 after weeks of fighting in Baghdad's Sadr City. Credit: Raheem Salman/Los Angeles Times

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the frictions between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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