BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi forces are meeting little resistance as they sweep through Baghdad, a U.S. officer said on Friday, a day after Iraq’s president said a Shi’ite militia had ordered its leaders to leave the country.
The head of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was wounded on Thursday when Iraqi forces intercepted a group of al Qaeda militants heading to a volatile town north of Baghdad, an Interior Ministry source said.
Two Interior Ministry sources who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity declined to give details of Masri’s whereabouts or say how security forces knew he had been wounded. They said an aide of Masri had been killed in the clash, which one of the sources said occurred on a road when the militants were travelling to the town of Samarra. The U.S. military said it was unable to confirm the reports.
In Baghdad, Iraqi and U.S. troops were out in force on Friday, manning checkpoints and searching vehicles for weapons under a new crackdown that exhausted Iraqis hope will stabilise the city after four years of war and worsening sectarian chaos.
U.S. Major Steven Lamb, a spokesman for U.S. forces stationed in Baghdad, said the offensive was going well. “I wouldn’t say there has been a high level of resistance. I mean if you take a look at the stuff that was going on yesterday, we had relatively few incidents, but that may change today,” Lamb said. “It’s really too early to say if this is going to be a success or … failure. But so far everyone is very pleased.”
Lamb said sweeps had been conducted in known hot spots, such as the Shi’ite stronghold of Kadhimiya, Sunni-dominated Adhamiya and the districts of Rusafa, Karrada and Rashid.
Masri, an Egyptian, assumed the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006.
A Interior Ministry spokesman quoted in a report by Iraq’s state television Iraqiya and monitored by the BBC indicated Masri had escaped the gunbattle after being hurt.
Iraqi officials have blamed Sunni al Qaeda in Iraq for destroying a holy Shi’ite shrine in Samarra a year ago, an act that unleashed a surge in sectarian bloodletting that has driven Iraq closer to all-out civil war.
The U.S. military has described Masri as a close Zarqawi associate. Washington has a $5 million bounty on Masri’s head.
The Baghdad crackdown aims to clear neighbourhoods of militants and weapons and then secure them in a bid to break the power of Shi’ite militias and Sunni insurgents.
But military analysts say many militiamen are likely to have left Baghdad or are lying low until the operation is completed.
President Jalal Talabani said on Thursday he believed anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had ordered heads of his Mehdi Army militia to leave Iraq.
Washington calls the militia, which rose up twice against American forces in 2004, the greatest threat to Iraq’s security. U.S. and Iraqi forces have arrested hundreds of its members in recent months.
Some Shi’ite officials outside Sadr’s movement say the militia wants to avoid a battle to protect the young cleric’s political gains. Sadr’s movement holds a quarter of the parliamentary seats in the ruling Shi’ite Alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The U.S. military has said Sadr is in Iran, but his aides insist he is in Iraq’s holy Shi’ite city, Najaf.
Lamb said there had been no major operations in Sadr City under the new offensive. “But the overall focus of the Baghdad security plan is to stop sectarian violence. Wherever it starts to rear its head, we will go,” he said.