Twofold Operation Seals Sadr City

By John Ward Anderson and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 30, 2006

BAGHDAD, Oct. 29 -- American military police backed by Iraqi troops maintained their cordon of Baghdad's Sadr City on Sunday, manning barricades and checkpoints in and around the Shiite slum in an operation to find a kidnapped U.S. soldier and to capture the man considered Iraq's most notorious death squad leader.

The soldier, an Iraqi American translator whose name has not been released, has been missing for six days. He was abducted by armed men while making an unauthorized visit to see relatives in the Karrada neighborhood of central Baghdad last Monday.

U.S. forces have effectively sealed off Sadr City and its 2.5 million residents from the rest of Baghdad, and within Sadr City, they have isolated the neighborhood around the home of alleged death squad leader Abu Deraa, according to an Iraqi Interior Ministry official who would not be named because he was not authorized to release the information.

U.S. officials have refused to comment on whether they believe that Abu Deraa is holding the missing soldier, and it was unclear whether the two goals of the U.S. operation -- finding the soldier and capturing Abu Deraa -- are related.

On Sunday, U.S. troops searched every car going in and out of Sadr City. Even donkey carts were searched; an American female MP patted a donkey as Iraqi troops sorted through the junked engine parts and cardboard piled on his back.

About a mile away, 1,000 men and women gathered inside Sadr City to protest the continuing U.S. operation. A woman cloaked in black robes declared over loudspeakers booming across a square that food and medicine were running short because of the near-blockade.

Parliament members and tribal leaders took the podium to demand that the Americans go away. Men pumped their fists but heeded appeals to remain calm.

"The Americans are trying to pull the Sadr movement into war with the U.S.," one speaker in brown robes exhorted. "Do not fall for their tricks. Keep calm, keep cool."

The Iraqi Interior Ministry official and residents of Sadr City said close lieutenants of Abu Deraa's and some of his relatives were killed in U.S. raids near his house on Wednesday and Friday. They said Abu Deraa, who is feared by Sunnis across the capital for allegedly leading a gang that has kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of Sunnis, appeared at a funeral Friday and vowed revenge against the United States and anyone in Sadr City who cooperated in the attacks. The Interior Ministry spokesman said Abu Deraa accused Moqtada al-Sadr -- an anti-U.S. Shiite cleric with many followers in Sadr City who leads the Mahdi Army militia -- of being "a coward."

The Mahdi Army, which runs Sadr City, has been accused of killing thousands of Sunni Arabs. But many security officials believe that Sadr is losing control of extremist members of his militia and that Abu Deraa might be a rogue element.

Sadr denies knowing anything about the kidnapping of the U.S. soldier, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said last week. The soldier's brother also was abducted, but he was later freed and told police that the kidnappers were from the Mahdi Army, Maliki said.

Although the Sadr movement has previously disavowed Abu Deraa, a Sadr spokesman said Sunday that Abu Deraa was a member of the militia and that he would never speak against the cleric.

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