Iraqi, U.S. troops arrest leader in al-Sadr's militia

30 to 40 militants injured or killed in firefight in second raid


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi and U.S. troops arrested a commander of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia and clashed with militants in the cleric's eastern Baghdad neighborhood yesterday, an apparent attempt to crack down on militias that have fueled sectarian violence across Iraq.

Adnan al-Unaybi, a top Mahdi Army leader, was arrested at his home near the central city of Hillah. Al-Unaybi allegedly engineered two roadside bomb attacks against multinational forces this spring, spied for Iran and smuggled weapons into Iraq, including SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, the U.S. military said.

In another morning raid, in Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City neighborhood, Iraqi troops backed by U.S. aircraft killed or wounded 30 to 40 militants in a 43-minute firefight that culminated in the arrest of another insurgent leader. The U.S. military did not name him.

The Sadr City slums are controlled by Sadr's Mahdi Army, the cleric's Shiite militia, which mounted two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004.

Militias like Sadr's remain one of the biggest roadblocks to securing Iraq. Shiite militias are believed to be responsible for kidnappings and executions of scores of Sunni Muslims, perpetuating the sectarian conflict that threatens to plunge the country into civil war.

Some of those militias have links with the Iraqi government's Interior Ministry. This week, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered a revamping of the country's 160,000-member Facilities Protection Service, which is supposed to secure infrastructure and public institutions but has been linked to kidnappings and assassinations.

As part of his sweeping reconciliation plan aimed at restoring peace to Iraq, al-Maliki called for the dissolution of the militias. Their members should be absorbed by Iraq's security forces, the prime minister said, but he has yet to lay out how he will accomplish that.

Indicted for the murder of a rival Shiite cleric in 2003, Sadr now wields considerable political influence. At least 30 members of parliament are Sadr loyalists who belong to Iraq's leading Shiite political bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance. He has legions of followers among Sadr City's 2 million residents.

The U.S. military said the man captured in the Sadr City raid oversaw several insurgent cells in Baghdad responsible for roadside bomb attacks and car bomb blasts directed at Iraqi and multinational security forces. He is also responsible for the slayings of two Iraqi soldiers, the U.S. military said, and is linked to a "punishment committee" that carried out vigilante acts against perceived enemies.

"What we're doing is targeting individuals responsible for insurgent activity, regardless of what their affiliation might be," said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson.

A top Sadr aide, Sahib al-Aameri, denounced the Sadr City raid and said it resulted in the deaths of six innocent Iraqis.

"We strongly condemn what the American forces and a brigade of the non-patriotic Iraqi army did last night," al-Aameri said. "The Iraqi government and the parliament members are responsible for this crime."

No shots were fired in the raid that caught al-Unaybi.

Meanwhile, sectarian tension continued to run high a day after a suicide car bomber attacked Iranian pilgrims near a Shiite shrine in the holy city of Kufa, killing 12 people.

Yesterday, bombs and mortar fire struck four Sunni mosques in and around Baghdad as well as a Shiite mosque in northern Iraq, killing 17 people and injuring more than 50.

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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