BAGHDAD, Iraq - US-led strike forces seized suspected Shiite death squad
bosses Tuesday in raids that tested the fragile bonds between the government and
a powerful militia faction allowing the Baghdad security crackdown to move
The sweeps through the Sadr City
slum were part of highly sensitive forays into areas loyal to radical cleric
Muqtada al-Sadr, who has ridiculed the 2-week-old campaign for failing to halt
bombings by suspected Sunni insurgents against Shiite civilians.
A man passes by cars destroyed in a car bomb explosion in
Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007. [AP]
withdrew his powerful Mahdi Army militia from checkpoints and bases under
intense government pressure to let the security push go forward. But the
US-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also worries that al-Sadr
could pull his support if he feels his militiamen are being squeezed in Baghdad.
The pre-dawn raids appeared to highlight a strategy of pinpoint strikes in
Sadr City rather than the flood of soldiers sent into some Sunni districts.
Bombings have not slackened off, with at least 10 people killed in blasts
around Baghdad on Tuesday. However, an apparent success of the clampdown can be
measured in the morgues: a sharp drop in the number of bullet-riddled bodies
found in the streets of the capital, victims of sectarian death squads.
The number of bodies found this month in Baghdad - most shot and showing
signs of torture - has dropped by nearly 50 percent to 494 as of Monday,
compared with 954 in January. The figure stood at 1,222 in December, according
to figures compiled by The Associated Press.
"We have seen a decrease in the past three weeks - a pretty radical
decrease," said Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 US commander in Iraq.
Many Sunnis have long alleged that most of killings were by Shiite militias,
such as the Mahdi Army or rogue elements within the Shiite-led police.
The US military said the raids targeted "the leadership of several rogue"
Mahdi Army cells that "direct and perpetrate sectarian murder" - an apparent
reference to execution-style slayings and torture. At least 16 people were
"My sons and wife were very terrified," complained Muhannad Mihbas, 30, who
said his brother and six cousins were taken in the sweeps. "Does the security
plan mean arresting innocent people and scaring civilians at night?"
Odierno declined to comment on whether there were special tactics governing
the Sadr City sweeps. "We will go after anyone who we feel is working against
the government of Iraq," he said.
US military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told Al-Arabiya television
that forces "will increase our operations in the coming days," but noted that
the security crackdown in the capital should continue until at least October.
Added Odierno: "We will keep at this until the people feel safe in their
Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb southwest of the capital killed three US
soldiers assigned to a unit based in Baghdad, the US military said. A fourth
Ameridan soldier was killed near Diwaniyah, a mostly Shiite town 80 miles south
Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, have arrested a suspect in the attempted
assassination of Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, an aide said.
The aide said the arrest was made after reviewing security camera video from
Monday's blast, which ripped through an awards ceremony at the ministry of
public works and killed at least 10 people. Abdul-Mahdi suffered leg injuries.
The aide declined to give any further details about the arrest or the
suspect. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to
brief the media.
Abdul-Mahdi is one of two vice presidents. The other is Sunni.
In the southern Qadisiya province, Iraqi security forces said they captured
157 suspects linked to a shadowy armed cell called the Soldiers of Heaven, or
Jund al-Samaa. The group was involved in a fierce gunbattle last month with
Iraqi forces who accused it of planning to kill Shiite clerics and others in the
belief it would hasten the return of the "Hidden Imam" - a descendant of the
Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the 9th century. Shiites believe
he will return one day to bring justice.
A US Apache helicopter was shot down in the fighting, and two US crew members
Meanwhile, state television reported that 18 boys were killed when a car bomb
exploded in a park in Ramadi, and Iraqi and international officials were quick
to deplore the slaughter. But questions about key details of the report emerged
just as quickly.
Iraqi police and state TV said the attack occurred Tuesday. Later, police
said it happened Monday.
The confusion grew deeper following an announcement by US forces that 30
civilians and one Iraqi soldier were injured by flying debris Tuesday when
troops intentionally detonated 15 bags of explosives found in Ramadi.
The news first broke after nightfall when it is too dangerous for local
journalists to check the reports independently in Ramadi, a Sunni insurgent
stronghold 70 miles west of Baghdad. Western reporters normally tour the area
only as part of military patrols. Much of Ramadi is under effective insurgent
control, and even the police have difficulty establishing the facts in bombings