BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq closed its borders with Iran and Syria as U.S. and Iraqi troops tightened their grip on Baghdad on Thursday, searching neighbourhoods and setting up checkpoints that stopped and searched even official convoys.
Residents of Sadr City, stronghold of the Mehdi Army of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, reported seeing fewer militiamen on the streets as Operation Imposing Law, a new crackdown to pacify the lawless capital, gathers pace.
The whereabouts of Sadr himself remained a mystery — U.S. officials said he was in Iran, but his aides insisted he was in Iraq’s holy Shi’ite city of Najaf. An Iraqi government official said he was in Tehran, but only for a short visit.
Insurgents defied a sweep by U.S. and Iraqi troops of the capital’s volatile southern, mainly Sunni Doura district, exploding two car bombs that killed four people. A bomb planted on a bus in Sadr City killed three people.
Some 3,000 Iraqi and British troops locked down the southern oil port of Basra, where feuding Shi’ite groups and criminal gangs have threatened security. Checkpoints were tightened on all roads out of the city as part of a 72-hour crackdown.
An Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the closure of Iraq’s four border crossings with Iran and two with Syria took effect on Wednesday.
U.S. officials have long accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its long, porous border into Iraq, and at the weekend presented evidence of what they said was Iranian-manufactured weapons being smuggled into Iraq.
Iraq had said it would shut the borders for 72 hours. The U.S. military said on Wednesday border checkpoints were to be revamped to establish “transfer points” to search vehicles.
A British military spokesman, Major David Gell, said two Iranian border crossings, in Basra and Maysan provinces, had been sealed by British and Iraqi forces.
The closures came as U.S. and Iraqi troops stepped up operations in a new offensive in Baghdad, the epicentre of sectarian violence between minority Sunnis and majority Shi’ites that has pitched the country toward civil war.
As low-flying fighter jets thundered over the city, rattling windows, U.S. forces spread out across the city. A spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, Major Steven Lamb, said 17 suspects were arrested and three weapons caches seized.
The crackdown aims to clear Baghdad’s neighbourhoods of militants and weapons and then secure them in a bid to break the power of Shi’ite militias and Sunni insurgents who have turned the capital’s streets into killing fields. But military analysts say the advance publicity given to the Baghdad security plan means many militiamen are likely to have left Baghdad or are lying low until the operation is completed, rather than confront security forces.
A Reuters photographer said Mehdi Army militiamen were helping police at the scene of the Sadr City bus bombing but were unarmed and wearing plain clothes. There were reports that several commanders had fled the capital.
The United States has identified the militia as the greatest threat to peace in Iraq and hundreds of Mehdi Army members have been arrested.
The U.S. military and Iraqi government officials have said Sadr himself left Iraq for Iran ahead of the crackdown, but aides repeated again on Thursday that he was still in Iraq.
Sadr was in a secret location in Najaf, a senior Sadr official, Salam al-Maliki, told Reuters.
Although Sadrists backed the new security clampdown, “some of the brothers who are wanted by the Americans have moved house because we’ve been targeted before”, he said.
Operation Imposing Law is seen as a last-ditch effort to stabilise the capital. Shi’ite officials have warned that failure could mean a collapse of the Shi’ite-led government.
More checkpoints appeared overnight and residents reported that even official government or security convoys were stopped and asked for weapons permits and identification papers. “I’d rather suffer from traffic jams than explosions. I am really happy they have finally decided to check all vehicles, including government convoys,” said Hussein Alwan, the 21-year- old owner of a computer software shop.
Another Reuters photographer said only people with Interior and Defence Ministry badges were allowed to keep their weapons. Civilians with permits had their guns seized. He saw two people arrested for not having identification documents.
Policemen and soldiers used long metal rods to prod piles of vegetables in produce trucks to look for bombs or weapons.