BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi troops set up checkpoints and intensified patrols in strategic streets they had taken over in the Baghdad bastion of Moqtada al-Sadr on Wednesday, testing a truce with the Shi'ite cleric's Mehdi Army militia.
Some 10,000 Iraqi soldiers, backed by tanks and U.S. attack helicopters, have been pushing deep into Sadr City since launching an operation on Tuesday to assert government authority on an area until now outside its control.
A truce 10 days ago between Shi'ite factions largely ended weeks of fighting pitting U.S. and Iraqi forces against the Mehdi Army that killed hundreds of people in one of Baghdad's poorest districts.
Under the truce, the Mehdi Army fighters agreed to lay down their weapons and for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government to restore its control over the slum.
"The Iraqi army came. Our relations with them are good. There is an understanding between us," said Salman al-Furaiji, the head of Sadr's office in Sadr City, adding that Iraqi soldiers had even held prayers alongside Mehdi Army fighters.
Iraqi security forces have so far met no resistance as they have moved into Sadr City, securing at least three quarters of the sprawling slum, residents and officials from Sadr's political movement say it is in sharp contrast to the fierce fighting sparked when Iraqi forces entered Mehdi Army strongholds in the southern oil port of Basra in March. The fighting quickly spread to towns in the south and Sadr City in the capital.
The operation was coordinated with Sadr's movement to avoid bloodshed, but tensions rose when some soldiers tried to go into mosques and used binoculars, which residents said they feared would enable them to peer at women in their houses.
Furaiji said the police had apologized for trying to enter mosques and agreed not to use binoculars.
"Tensions have eased because of this," he said.
TEST FOR TRUCE
Major-General Qassim Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, said the setting up of checkpoints and patrols was to prepare for a new phase of the operation. He declined to comment further, but an army source said it would involve seizing heavy weapons from militiamen.
That is likely to test the truce as the militiamen have refused to hand over their arsenal, which includes rockets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The source said a joint committee comprising members of Sadr's movement and the ruling Shi'ite alliance -- the two signatories to the truce -- would enter the city to oversee the army operation.
One Mehdi Army leader, Abu Ammar, said his men had received orders from Sadr's head office in the holy city of Najaf to cooperate with the Iraqi forces as far as possible.
"We received orders not to lose our temper even if we witness a violation," he said.
But another militiaman said the Mehdi Army was poised to retaliate for any misbehavior by the army.
"The Iraqi army should be careful, because they are confined inside the city," Abu Yassir said. "If they commit any violation or harm any civilians, we will defeat them: they are in our hands."