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US, Iraqi Forces Search Baghdad's Sadr City

American and Iraqi forces have entered Baghdad's Shi'ite militia stronghold Sadr City, and are searching homes for insurgents. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Irbil that, as the Baghdad security operation continues to expand, Iraq officials are vowing the country's growing military will not be used to attack other nations.

Hundreds of U.S. troops sealed off streets and set-up checkpoints in Sadr City, a stronghold of the powerful Mahdi Army militia.

The move into Sadr City followed discussions with neighborhood leaders about the deployment of U.S. forces into the area. Sadr City residents have reported for weeks that many militia members have left town or gone into hiding.

Iraqi officials have announced a new program aimed at enticing about 500 former Iraqi Army officers who served in Saddam Hussein's military to return.

Representatives from Iraq's religious and ethnic groups held a national reconciliation conference on Sunday, to discuss ways to boost the military's strength.

A representative at the conference, Rashid Najee al-Nasaree, told Iraqi television that the military already includes many members of Iraq's former army.

He says, "Some 60 percent of the troops belong to the former army." He says nearly all of the army's Iraqi military trainers also served in the country's former military.

The head of the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, demobilized Iraq's military in May of 2003. Although U.S. officials later reversed the decision, and began re-hiring former Iraqi soldiers, the army dismissal has been widely blamed for contributing to the country's continuing violence.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the chief focus of the country's expanding military should be national security.

He says, Iraq's current army is a patriotic army, whose mission is to protect the country.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials are preparing for a regional meeting later this week that will include representatives from Iran, Syria and the United States. Prime Minister Maliki says the talks will focus on soliciting outside help for stabilizing Iraq.

He says, the countries that have been invited have a responsibility for what is happening. He says the talks are important to prevent the terrorism in Iraq from spreading to other countries.

Ambassadors representing Iraq's neighbors, as well as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States - are expected to attend.