Troops Seize More Than a Dozen Suspects in Raid on Baghdad's Sadr City

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 8, 2008

BAGHDAD, Feb. 7 -- U.S. and Iraqi soldiers raided the Shiite district of Sadr City on Thursday and arrested 16 people. The U.S. military said later that one detainee died from wounds received during the operation.

Hours after the assault on the stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr, the rebellious Shiite cleric warned in a statement that he would expel fighters of his Mahdi Army who violate a six-month-old suspension of military operations against U.S. and allied Iraqi forces. The unilateral cease-fire has been one reason violence in Baghdad has declined over that time.

"Any member of the Mahdi Army who performs armed action during the freeze will be disavowed and will be considered out of the organization," the statement said. "You should know that our goal is independence."

Sadr's cease-fire is partly an attempt to improve his image among Iraqis across sectarian lines, a bid to position himself as a nationalist leader. But it is also designed to help him assert control over what had become an unruly militia comprising at least tens of thousands of fighters. In recent months, rogue Mahdi Army fighters have ignored his order in some areas of Baghdad and southern Iraq.

U.S. and Iraqi troops conducted the Sadr City operation against what they called "special group criminal elements" that had fired on them and staged ambushes with sophisticated roadside bombs. As troops backed by Humvees and helicopters approached the target house, they came under small-arms fire. The soldiers returned fire, fatally wounding one of the attackers, the military said. A woman also suffered minor injuries, it said.

"Criminal elements who insist on ignoring al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire pledge remain a threat not only to the citizens of Baghdad but to the security of Iraq," Lt. Col. James Hutton, a U.S. military spokesman, said in a statement.

Sadr's followers asserted that the detainees were not criminals, but instead were employees of a cultural office that taught Sadr's doctrines. "They detained people who are neutral and educated people," said Abu Sajjad, a Sadr follower in Sadr City who lives near the house that was raided. "They care only about religion. They will never be with the military wing."

Salah al-Obaidi, a senior Sadr spokesman in the southern city of Najaf, also denounced the raid. But he said any decision to end the cease-fire would be up to Sadr.

"This act is not the first one," Obaidi said. "It is a frequent act by the occupation and the security forces which led to mistrust of the Iraqi government by all Sadr followers."

Near the city of Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, a roadside bomb wounded four children tending sheep, Iraqi police said.

In the town of Khan Bani Saad, also in Diyala province, gunmen stormed a house, killing three members of a Sunni family and wounding a 4-year-child, said Maj. Gen. Ghanim al-Quraishi, a provincial police official. Members of the family belonged to a U.S.-backed Sunni "Awakening" force, police said.

In the village of Muradiyah, near Baqubah, gunmen attacked another group of Awakening members, killing three and injuring four. In the clashes, two gunmen were killed, police said.

Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf, special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Diyala province contributed to this report.

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