BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi and US forces have captured more than 600 fighters loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the US military has said, after a day of carnage that left 100 dead in a string of bombings in and around Baghdad.
In a major crackdown launched in the past few weeks against the Mahdi Army — the militia headed by Sadr and considered the biggest security threat to Iraq by the Pentagon — more than 600 fighters and 16 militia leaders have been detained, the military said Tuesday.
“There are currently over 600 illegal Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia in detention awaiting prosecution from the government of Iraq,” a statement said.
It said Iraqi and US forces had also detained 16 high-level militiamen and killed one commander in a series of operations against the Mahdi Army, known for its fiercely anti-American stance.
“The detainees are responsible for attacks against the government of Iraq, Iraqi citizens and coalition forces,” the military said.
Combined Iraqi and US forces have carried out 52 operations in the past 45 days focused on the Mahdi Army as well as 42 operations targeting Sunni extremists, it said.
The operations against the Sunni extremists resulted in the capture of 33 cell leaders in Baghdad, the statement said, charging that the detainees were mainly involved in facilitating foreign fighters entry into Iraq.
The US military has accused the Mahdi Army, which is believed to have up to 60,000 fighters, of being heavily involved in sectarian killing of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad and other regions of the country.
The latest quarterly Pentagon report released last month said Sadr’s milita was the largest threat to security and “has replaced Al-Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq.”
US and Iraqi forces aim to take down these fighters as part of a new Baghdad security plan announced by US President George W. Bush earlier this month to crush the sectarian fighting that killed tens of thousands last year.
On Friday, security forces had announced capturing a top Sadr aide, Sheikh Abdul Hadi al-Darraji, a spokesman for the group in Baghdad, in a raid on a religious site in the Shiite slum district of Sadr City.
Before joining Iraq’s political process, Sadr led two bloody rebellions against US forces in April and August 2004, a year after the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
The Mahdi fighters suffered heavy casualties in the battles fought in the Shiite holy city of Najaf after which Sadr joined Iraq’s political process and has now emerged powerful in the newly empowered Shiite-led government.
He commands a group of 32 MPs in the parliament and six ministers in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s embattled cabinet.
But fearing a sustained US planned assault, his political group on Sunday ended their nearly two-month long boycott of the government.
A source close to Sadr movement told AFP Monday that the group had been told not to “confront the Americans.”
Insurgent attacks continued in Iraq Tuesday with eight more people killed, including five policemen in the northern city of Mosul.
Monday was the deadliest day in the country this year.
At least 100 people died, including 88 who were blown up in twin car bombings in a market in an impoverished district of Baghdad that has been the frequent target of attack.
To rein in the growing insurgent attacks and the sectarian militias the US military has begun deploying more troops in Baghdad, a plan mocked by Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“In his latest speech, Bush said in his ramblings that he would send 20,000 of his soldiers to Iraq. I ask him: why send only 20,000 soldiers? Why don’t you send 50,000 or 100,000?” Zawahiri said an online video message.
“Don’t you know that the dogs of Iraq are impatient to devour the carcasses of your soldiers?
“On the contrary, you must send your entire army to be annihilated at the hands of the mujahedin so that the whole world will be rid of your wickedness.”
The Al-Qaeda-led Sunni insurgency has inflicted heavy casualties on US forces in Iraq.
Two more US soldiers were reported dead Tuesday, taking total deaths this month to 49 and the military’s losses since the 2003 invasion to 3,055.