BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – U.S. and Iraqi forces swooped into a mosque complex in east Baghdad before dawn and detained a top aide to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the latest in a series of operations aimed at eviscerating the leadership of the Mahdi Army militia.
Friday’s raid drew immediate fire from the Iraqi government, which said it had not been consulted. An aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who owes his job as Iraqi leader to al-Sadr’s backing, said the operation was not part of a coming joint U.S.-Iraq security drive.
Under the plan, to which U.S. President George W. Bush has committed an additional 21,500 American soldiers, U.S. commanders have been promised a freer hand in rolling up both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen. “There was no coordination with the Iraqi political leadership and this arrest was not part of the new security plan,” Sadiq al-Rikabi, the al-Maliki adviser, told Al-Arabiya television. “Coordination with the Iraqi political leadership is needed before conducting such operations that draw popular reactions.”
Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji was captured and his bodyguard was killed in what Abdul-Zahra al-Suweiadi, a senior al-Sadr aide, called a “cowardly act.” Al-Sadr’s office said al-Darraji was media director for the cleric’s political movement and demanded his immediate release.
“America is playing with fire and our patience is beginning to fade,” said Abdul-Razzaq al-Nidawi, an al-Sadr aide in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. “This savage barbarian act will not pass peacefully.”
The U.S. military, in a statement that did not name al-Darraji or mention the Mahdi Army by name, said special Iraqi army forces operating with U.S. advisers had “captured a high-level, illegal armed group leader” in Baghdad’s Baladiyat neighborhood, which is adjacent to Sadr City, the Mahdi Army stronghold.
“Iraqi forces detained him based on credible intelligence that he is the leader of illegal armed group (involved in) … the organized kidnapping, torture and murder of Iraqi civilians. The suspect is also reportedly involved in the assassination of numerous Iraqi Security Forces members and government officials,” the statement said. It said two other suspects were detained for further questioning.
In the south of the country, the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said he thought some of the extra troops for Baghdad might return home after a few months. “I think it’s probably going to be the summer, late summer, before you get to the point where people in Baghdad feel safe in their neighborhoods,” Casey said at news conference with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Asked how long the additional American forces would remain, Casey replied, “I believe the projections are late summer.”
The first group of extra troops, a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, has just arrived in Baghdad, and Gates said it was too early to predict how Bush’s plan for quelling the sectarian violence in the capital will work.
Four other brigades are to be sent to Iraq between now and May, assuming the Iraqis follow through on their commitment to bring three additional Iraqi army brigades into Baghdad and to allow raids against all illegal militias.
Gates’ daylong visit, his second since replacing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last month, was not announced in advance. The defense chief met with U.S. commanders and their allied counterparts as the Bush troop buildup was meeting widespread opposition in Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that the Iraq war “is not an obligation of the American people in perpetuity.”
Pelosi said Bush “has dug a hole so deep he can’t even see the light on this. It’s a tragedy. It’s a stark blunder.”
Democratic support was building around a resolution that would rebuff Bush’s plans for more troops to Iraq, and more Republicans were looking for ways to sign on to the measure.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper, meanwhile, al-Sadr said the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown had already begun. He confirmed remarks earlier this week that 400 Mahdi Army men had been arrested.
The La Repubblica interviewer quoted al-Sadr as saying he feared for his life and stayed on the move constantly. His aides have told The Associated Press he seldom sleeps in the same place two nights in succession. Al-Sadr said his militias would not fight back immediately because Islam forbids killing during the Muslim holy month of Muharram, which starts Friday for Sunnis and Saturday for Shiites.
“Let them kill us. For a true believer there is no better moment than this to die: Heaven is ensured,” he was quoted as saying. “After Muharram, we’ll see.”
Al-Sadr said he is being targeted. “For this reason, I have moved my family to a secure location. I even have had a will drawn up, and I move continuously in a way that only few can know where I am,” he was quoted as saying by La Repubblica.
Some of al-Sadr’s militia commanders have said al-Maliki has stopped protecting the Shiite fighters under pressure from Washington. They have claimed at least five top commanders were captured or killed in recent months.
While al-Maliki has vowed he will not interfere in U.S. attempts to rid the city of militia gunmen, al-Rikabi declared that “the new security plan does not target a specific militia, it targets everyone practice killing and terrorism against civilians, whether Sunnis or Shiites.”
At least 27 people were killed or found dead as a result of sectarian violence across the country on Friday, including a man working for the Ministry of Tourism and Archaeology Affairs who was shot to death near his home in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad. Gunmen also attacked a Shiite mosque in southern Baghdad, killing two guards than detonating explosives to damage the building. A roadside bomb also killed one U.S. soldier and wounded three others in an attack Thursday against a patrol that was escorting a convoy in northwestern Baghdad, the military said Friday.