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.
"Abu Deraa is merely a slave and a simple person in the Sadr movement, and he could not utter such words, for he is one of the dear fighters of the Mahdi Army and the Sadr movement," said Mohammed al-Kaabi, who works in Sadr's office in the city of Najaf.
[Early Monday, a bomb ripped through a Sadr City market where Iraqi Shiites were lined up for day labor jobs, killing at least 31 people and wounding more than 50, the Associated Press reported, citing police officials.]
On Sunday, the U.S. military said it launched a surprise attack on insurgents who were gathering in two places to ambush coalition forces near the city of Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, killing about 17 guerrillas. Local officials and residents, who put the number of dead at 11, said the group had gathered to defend the Sunni hamlet of Duluiyah, about four miles across the Tigris River from Balad, fearing that it was going to be attacked.
The two towns were the site of intense Shiite-Sunni strife earlier this month, after Sunni insurgents kidnapped and beheaded 17 Shiite laborers in Duluiyah. Shiite leaders in Balad responded by asking for protection from the Mahdi Army, touching off a four-day sectarian rampage that left as many as 100 people dead. Both towns have since been bracing for reprisals.
Duluiyah police Maj. Ahmed Aziz said a group of armed men had gathered late Saturday to defend the town after receiving news that commandos from Iraq's Interior Ministry -- which has been accused of harboring Shiite death squads -- were preparing an assault. He said the men were "planning to ambush the commandos if they launched such an attack," but instead were struck by three missiles fired by U.S. jets.
Ali Kareem, a 35-year-old farmer whose brother was killed in the strike, said groups were positioned around the town to repel an expected offensive by U.S. forces and Interior Ministry commandos. He said their operations were coordinated with local police.
"We told the police that we do not need you with us in this operation, and we asked them to remain at their police station to defend the city in case the Interior commandos came and wanted to take over the city," Kareem said. "So we would be the first line of defense, and the police would be the second line of defense inside the city.
"We would not let them take us as prisoners. Either they kill us or we kill them."
The U.S. military statement said coalition forces were moving "toward their objective" early Sunday when they "encountered terrorist activity on two separate occasions along their route." The statement, which did not specify the purpose of the operation, said aircraft "engaged the targets with precision fire," killing four guerrillas in the first strike and about 13 more in subsequent attacks.
Elsewhere, 17 police trainees and translators reportedly were killed when gunmen ambushed their bus near the southern city of Basra, local authorities said. Baghdad police said 25 bodies, many bearing signs of torture, were found across the capital Sunday morning. And at least 25 more people were killed in shootings, bombings and other violence in Iraq on Sunday, according to police, security officials and wire services.
Officials at state television station al-Iraqiya said that one of the station's sports broadcasters, Naqsheen Hamma Rasheed, was killed along with her driver Sunday morning while headed to work in Baghdad. She was the second sportscaster from the station to be slain in the past five months.
Falah al-Fadhly, the station's managing editor for news, said Rasheed, a Kurd, was shot about 9:30 as she was getting out of the car at the station, which is across the street from the Justice Ministry. The gunmen fled, he said.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed.