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Iraqi city appears relatively calm

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  • NEW: U.S. military finds Iraqi troops' performance inconsistent
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Security forces in the southern Iraqi city of Basra hunted militants Wednesday in a stronghold of a powerful Shiite militia.

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Iraqi women walk Tuesday past market stalls that were burned during fighting last week in Basra.

But the violence that paralyzed the oil-rich city last week has died down, with one politician describing the city as "relatively calm and stable."

The operation in the Hayaniya neighborhood, a bastion for Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, is part of the offensive the central government began March 25 against what it says are criminal elements and militia members in Basra.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, head of the Interior Ministry's National Command Center, said troops entered the area to "detain important wanted targets." He said they encountered rooftop snipers and roadside bombs.

Mazin al-Tayyar, a reporter for the U.S.-funded al-Hurra TV station, said he was shot while accompanying commanders into the neighborhood and was in stable condition.

Al-Tayyar also reported that a roadside bomb struck an army vehicle but there were no casualties. As troops stopped to clear the road, they came under sniper and rocket-propelled grenade fire. He said he filmed five minutes of fighting before he was struck.

In another incident reported Wednesday by the U.S. military, Iraqi Special Operation forces, advised by U.S. Special Forces, killed "14 criminals" on Tuesday in a fight at an abandoned school called "a staging point for armed assaults" against troops.

Despite the reports of ongoing sporadic clashes, a relative peace is returning to Basra, police said. Video Watch how life seems to be returning to normal »

Military and political officials hope to end the offensive soon, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who had been in Basra to guide the effort, returned to Baghdad on Tuesday and declared the operation a success. Defense and Interior Ministry officials remain in Basra to guide security force actions.

In Baghdad's predominantly Shiite Sadr City neighborhood, at least three people were killed and 13 others, including a local TV cameraman, were wounded on Wednesday by a roadside bomb, an Interior Ministry official said.

Also Wednesday, a parked car bomb in Mosul in northern Iraq killed a woman and wounded four police officers, local police said. Police said a police convoy was the target and the woman was a bystander.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have been stepping up their fight against Sunni militants in the city in recent weeks.

The Basra operation stoked rage among Shiites, and the violence spread across southern Iraq and to Baghdad. It aggravated intra-Shiite clashes, particularly the hostilities between the Mehdi Army and the Badr Organization, a group affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq that has a strong presence in security forces. ISCI is a major party in Iraq's ruling United Iraqi Alliance.

Hundreds were killed and wounded in the fighting across Iraq, which ended when al-Sadr ordered his men to stand down after talks with Iranian and Iraqi Shiite officials.

A member of the Basra provincial council, Aqeel Thabil, said Basra businesses and government offices are reopening and traffic is getting back to normal.

Basra police chief Gen. Abdul Jalil Khalaf said more than 75 percent of the city is under security force control and that troops and police have access to all areas of the city.

The U.S. and British militaries have backed up Iraqi security forces but have not participated in ground operations. However, the discord was significant enough for Britain to announce that it was delaying the withdrawal of 1,500 troops.

Britain, which had been based in Basra during the Iraq war, transferred security control to Iraqi forces in December. It reduced some of its forces, moved to the outskirts of the city and changed its mission to what it calls security overwatch.

There are different takes on Iraqi forces' performance and on the progress the offensive has made.

A U.S. assessment found some Iraqi troops were up to the task and others weren't.

"The vast majority of Iraqi security forces performed their mission. There were those who were unable to do so," said Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

Bergner said the government wants to integrate more volunteers into the forces, bolster the numbers of soldiers and police and strengthen the performance of the military's operations.

"No question there are challenges. There are also several instances here that reflect a significant improvement, just in the past year," Bergner said.

Al-Maliki said on Iraqi TV Tuesday that the "criminal gangs" that were targeted by the government were administered "very painful blows, they lost control and ran away leaving their weapons on the street."

"The government achieved what it wanted and forced these gangs to either flee, get detained or killed and they are still fleeing in the midst of this pursuit," the prime minister said.

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But a Basra provincial government official said the plan "was a failure and cost the government and its security forces their dignity and inflicted a major moral setback."

He said the deal cut with al-Sadr amounted to a face-saving measure for the government and is giving a mistaken impression that there has been progress. The official said that even though militia members are no longer seen on main thoroughfares, they remain firmly entrenched in their strongholds. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

All About BasraBaghdadMuqtada al-SadrNuri al-Maliki

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