By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
BAGHDAD, Feb. 13 -- Iraqi officials on Tuesday announced the temporary closure of checkpoints at the Syrian and Iranian borders, as well as an expanded nighttime curfew in the capital, as part of the new Baghdad security plan.
In a televised address, Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar, who is in charge of the security plan, said the border will be closed for 72 hours, but he did not specify when. There are two main crossing points connecting Iraq and Syria, and four checkpoints along the border with Iran.
Iraqi officials have said many weapons and insurgents waging attacks in Iraq enter the country through Iran and Syria. U.S. officials said Sunday that they have linked to Iran deadly armor-piercing explosives used against American forces. Iraq's borders with Saudi Arabia and Turkey will remain unaffected.
The curfew, which currently bars transit in Baghdad from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., will begin an hour earlier, the general said.
Many Iraqis have criticized the government for not taking drastic steps sooner to tighten security in the capital, which has been battered in recent weeks by large-scale bombings and other violence.
Some have questioned whether the armed forces charged with carrying out the plan are properly trained, equipped and committed to make a dent in the violence.
As part of the plan, Iraqi and U.S. soldiers will patrol 10 areas of the city from posts that are designed to function much like police stations, giving officials time to get to know the area and gain the trust of citizens.
Gambar also announced a crackdown on weapons in Baghdad, where many people drive around with rifle barrels sticking out of vehicle windows. U.S. military personnel, the Iraqi armed forces and police, and licensed members of certain private security companies will still be allowed to carry weapons.
The general announced wide powers for authorities to detain and interrogate suspects as well as search property -- powers that Iraqi and U.S. forces have long exercised.
The general also said official convoys, which have largely avoided searches at checkpoints, will now be stopped and searched routinely.
More lawbreakers will be charged, the general announced, as Iraq's criminal court expands its caseload capability. Currently, Iraqi and U.S. officials are holding tens of thousands of people who have not been charged.
"The Iraqi Central Criminal Court will hold exceptional sessions to deal with this situation," the general said.
The general also said the government intends to crack down on squatters, many of whom have occupied homes abandoned by people who left neighborhoods for fear of being killed by groups who target members of a rival sect.
Also Tuesday, a senior U.S. official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity said that anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had fled the country some weeks ago for neighboring Iran, according to the Associated Press.
The official said that the Shiite cleric's departure, which was reported by several television networks, is not believed to be permanent. Sadr left his Baghdad stronghold possibly because of fractures in his political and militia operations, AP cited the official as saying. Sadr heads the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia.
Aides to Sadr in Iraq would not confirm the report, which was not possible to independently verify.
Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded near warehouses that belong to Iraq's Interior Ministry in western Baghdad, killing at least 18 people, according to a ministry spokesman.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military disclosed the death of an American soldier Sunday in Anbar province in western Iraq.
Special correspondent Waleed Saffar contributed to this report.