US troops went from house to house on Wednesday in Baghdad’s Shiite stronghold looking for bombs and arms ahead of an Iraqi army deployment in line with a new truce, witnesses and officials said.
Motorcycles and trucks were also subjected to searches by sniffer dogs before being allowed into the impoverished east Baghdad district of Sadr City, where anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has strong support.
Witnesses saw US tanks aiming their heavy weapons towards Sector Nine of Sadr City while the Americans carried out a tedious search procedure, questioning residents with the help of translators.
The operations were concentrated in the immediate neighbourhood of a wall the Americans have been building that cuts off one-third of Sadr City from the rest of the district.
AFP correspondents said that even the small arms traditionally owned by Iraqis were being confiscated.
The wall is to help reduce the smuggling of rockets and mortars that were fired at the Green Zone compound in central Baghdad where the Iraqi government and the US embassy are located, according to the US military.
Armed helicopters and spy planes provided aerial cover for the troops, who have taken the brunt of seven weeks of fighting with Shiite militia.
However, only one incident was reported overnight, when US troops killed two men who were allegedly placing a roadside bomb in the area, a US military spokesman said.
“We welcome the reduced levels of violence because it benefits the Iraqi people,” US Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover said.
A medic at Sadr City’s Imam Ali hospital said it had received bodies of three men killed overnight, while another at the Al-Sadr hospital confirmed receiving two bodies.
They said 22 people were wounded, including women and children.
A deal between Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and the government to end violence was announced at the weekend and was set to go into full effect from Wednesday, according to both sides.
Iraqi security officials said local security forces were expected to move into the area from Thursday and keep up clearing roadside bombs and search for heavy weapons in the neighbourhood in line with the new truce.
“We want the security forces to enter Sady City as soon as possible,” Qassim Atta, the spokesman for the Baghdad security plan said, adding that he expected the militia to honour the truce.
The US army said its Iraqi counterparts had sent humanitarian aid to Sadr City and were moving to restore utilities and improve sanitation in a neighbourhood where there had been little garbage removal.
“Over 44,000 different types of meals were delivered (Wednesday), 114,000 bottles of water, appliances, generators,” a US statement said. “It was a large project to undertake and a very big step for the Iraqi Army.”
Since late March, the district has been rocked by gunfire, shelling and air strikes as militiamen clashed with US and Iraqi troops.
Security forces had killed at least 150 militiamen in the past two months. The military blames the militia for killing or wounding 269 civilians.
Fighting spread to Sadr City after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on Shiite fighters in the main southern port city of Basra.
In the centre of Baghdad, a roadside bomb attack targeting a key member of parliament killed a bodyguard and wounded two others on Wednesday, police said.