By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 28, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 27 -- U.S. and Iraqi forces returned to Sadr City on Friday to search the Shiite Muslim slum for a missing U.S. soldier, occasionally engaging in gun battles with members of local militias during their hunt.
The soldier, an Iraqi-born translator whose name has not been released, was abducted by gunmen in Karrada, a middle-class Shiite neighborhood in central Baghdad, while visiting relatives on Monday, the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, according to the U.S. military. U.S. soldiers rarely, if ever, are allowed to wander alone on the streets of Baghdad, and the visit had not been approved, military officials said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have conducted an intense hunt across Baghdad, searching cars at checkpoints, going door to door and raiding areas where they think he might be held.
In an interview with Reuters news service Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the soldier's brother was kidnapped with him but had been released.
"The brother who was released said he had been abducted by the Mahdi Army," Maliki said, referring to the militia headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, an anti-U.S. cleric. "But we don't know what the Mahdi Army means anymore."
The militia, which has clashed with U.S. troops on several occasions, is accused of being behind death squads that have slaughtered thousands of Sunni Arabs. Many analysts say they believe that rogue units of the militia may no longer be under Sadr's control, and Maliki said in the interview that some Sunnis now operate in the name of the Mahdi Army.
Sadr's political movement is a key member of Maliki's governing Shiite coalition, and U.S. officials have expressed frustration that he has not done more to disarm the group.
"We asked the Sadr movement to look" for the missing soldier, Maliki said, "and they swear they know nothing."
On Wednesday, U.S. troops launched two raids in Sadr City, a teeming Baghdad slum and home to 2.5 million Shiites, many of whom are Sadr loyalists.
Maliki said in the Reuters interview that the target of Wednesday's U.S. operation was Abu Deraa, who is considered a death squad leader responsible for killing scores of Sunnis. It was unclear whether Abu Deraa is a suspect in the kidnapping of the U.S. soldier, and U.S. officials declined to comment.
"We are conducting operations in search of the soldier, but there are many other operations as well, and we don't want to identify any people as targets" because it could tip them off, said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman.
On Thursday, U.S. soldiers blocked entrances to Sadr City with armored vehicles, sandbags and concertina wire. Traffic backed up in both directions for hours as soldiers waved cars through one at a time for searches.
"They turned Sadr City to hell these last three days," said Abdul Hameed Swadi, waiting in the jam of cars outside one of the bridges into Sadr City.
"Why are we waiting like this?" a woman cloaked in a black robe yelled to an Iraqi soldier standing with the Americans.
"It's an order from the Americans," the Iraqi soldier said.
"You are in the Iraqi army," she yelled back. "What kind of army are you?"
An Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said the Friday incursion into Sadr City targeted the Zahraa mosque and Hakim High School. He said gunfights erupted between members of the Mahdi Army and U.S. troops, and that U.S. planes targeted the two buildings and destroyed them. He said it was unclear whether there were casualties. The account could not be independently verified.
Meanwhile, in an apparent effort to tamp down reports of disagreement between the United States and Iraq over timelines and benchmarks for progress in Iraq, Maliki and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad issued a rare joint news release late Friday, saying they were "committed to working together to respond to the needs of the people."
"The Iraqi government has made clear the issues that must be resolved with timelines for them to take positive steps forward on behalf of the Iraqi people," the statement said, without elaborating on what issues would be subject to timelines. Maliki had previously said he did not want timelines imposed on his government by the United States.
Also Friday, the U.S. military announced that a soldier who was killed in Diyala province on Thursday was the 97th U.S. fatality of the month, making October the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Iraq since January 2005, when 106 service members died.
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and Washington Post staff in Kirkuk and Baghdad contributed to this report.