Peace - Baghdad style

BAGHDAD enjoyed a single day of relative peace on Saturday, with police reporting that only five bodies had been found in the Iraqi capital, against a more usual 50 or more.

It was not to last. Despite an ongoing security effort, called Operation Imposing Law, backed by US troops and increased numbers of Iraqi army soldiers, two car bombs tore through a packed shopping area of a mainly Shiite district, killing 60.

Carlos Barria, a photographer who is embedded with a US military unit that was in the area, reported seeing seven or eight bodies lying in the street after the two blasts, which he said were about ten seconds and 100 yards apart.

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"I saw a man about 50 years old. He was carrying a dead boy who looked about ten. He was holding him by one arm and one leg and screaming," he said.

Fifteen minutes earlier, a joint patrol of US and Iraqi police had stopped to pose for pictures with each other on the street corner where the second bomb exploded.

Baghdad's markets have been hit by a spate of particularly deadly car bombings since the start of the year. Some 71 people were killed a week ago in Shorja wholesale market, prompting US generals to look at pedestrianising the bigger markets.

A third car bomb yesterday killed two people when it exploded near a police checkpoint in Sadr City, a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi army , blamed by Sunni Arab leaders for many death-squad killings.

Residents of areas like Sadr City and New Baghdad view the Mahdi army as their protectors. The militia have been keeping a low profile since the offensive began, appearing on the streets without their guns.

The US military said Sadr has fled to Iran, although Tehran denied this yesterday. The cleric's aides insist he is still in Iraq.

British forces also clashed with fighters armed with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades in a Mahdi army stronghold in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, killing at least three gunmen.

Meanwhile, US troops are working hard to strike a balance between force and friendship in the opening days of the push to bring order to Baghdad.

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After storming into neighbourhoods, kicking through doors, they later return offering stickers and footballs decorated with doves and olive branches. During so-called "walk and talks," they meet Iraqis face to face to assure them peace is coming - although past promises have turned out to be mirages.

"This mission is as much about information-operations as it is anything else," said Sergeant Jeff Olsen, 32.

Soldiers describe the approach as the "Mosul Model" - named after the northern Iraqi city where US forces tried to become a kind of philanthropic foundation involved in everything from rebuilding political councils to fixing playgrounds.

One of its pioneers three years ago, General David Petraeus, is now the commander of all US forces in Iraq.

In its first days, Baghdad's security operation has focused on the Shaab district, a mostly Shiite section of north-east Baghdad, where soldiers have received mixed feedback.

Faris Shabil, a 33-year-old Baghdad resident, told soldiers he has trouble believing that Americans can keep his family safe. Often, days and weeks pass without any sign of a military patrol. He asked troops to tell their commanders that Iraqis would secure their own neighbourhoods if Americans cannot. "This is my neighbourhood. It's not your neighbourhood. It's my priority to keep this neighbourhood safe, not yours," he told troops through a translator.

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