Troops get free rein in search

Once-barred Shiite areas entered in hunt for missing soldier

December 08, 2006|By Solomon Moore | Solomon Moore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In pursuit of a missing soldier, U.S. and Iraqi special forces units have staged dozens of operations in Shiite Muslim neighborhoods that once were ruled off-limits by the Shiite-dominated government.

The raids into territory dominated by the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, risk worsening tensions within the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has shown a new willingness to confront paramilitary forces believed to take part in kidnappings and death squad operations.

"We have carte blanche at this point," said a high-ranking U.S. commander. "Whereas before we had to tippy-toe around these areas, now we can go in there as we like to search for our missing soldier."

U.S. Army Spc. Ahmed Qusai Taei, 41, an Iraqi-American immigrant, disappeared Oct. 23 while making an unauthorized visit to relatives in Baghdad.

U.S. military officials believe that Taei is being held in Sadr City and have offered a $50,000 reward to help find him.

"Over 2,100 U.S. troops and 1,200 Iraqi security forces have been involved in 57 operations to find our missing soldier," said Army spokesman Maj. Shawn Stroud. "In the process, we have detained 49 anti-Iraqi forces."

A U.S. officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said most of those operations have focused in Shiite neighborhoods.

Al-Sadr loyalists comprise one of the most powerful factions in al-Maliki's government. To preserve his fragile alliance with the firebrand cleric, al-Maliki has at times obstructed U.S. military efforts in Mahdi Army strongholds.

Days after Taei's abduction, al-Maliki ordered U.S. and Iraqi forces to remove roadblocks around Sadr City that had been aimed at boxing in Taei's kidnappers. In August, as the U.S. military started its ambitious plan to quell sectarian violence in Baghdad, al-Maliki demanded that American commanders clear with him any operations in Shiite neighborhoods. He thwarted several planned assaults.

Haidar Tarfi, an al-Sadr aide, said U.S. soldiers recently increased the number of raids, including one on Tarfi's house, in the holy city of Najaf, another Mahdi Army stronghold south of the capital.

American commanders say they conduct limited strikes in Sadr City and other Mahdi Army strongholds, using small Iraqi and U.S. special forces units.

"We're trying to use the minimum amount of force necessary to accomplish the mission," said a U.S. officer, who requested anonymity while discussing special forces operations.

"Most of the raids take place in central Sadr City," said Qahtan Sudani, an al-Sadr representative in Baghdad. "When the raids happen, they avoid the main entrances to the neighborhood. Most times they are accompanied by the `Dirty Iraqi Division.' This division doesn't follow the orders of the Iraqi government."

Little is known publicly about Iraqi special forces units, a relatively new force that has participated in operations against suspected Shiite death squad members and high-level Iraqi insurgents.

The U.S. military announced yesterday that Iraqi special forces soldiers captured six suspected insurgents in a raid this week in Yusifiya, a town south of Baghdad.

Other violence around Baghdad yesterday killed at least 22 Iraqis, including 19 alleged gunmen who were killed by police commandos in Madaen, a suburb 12 miles south of the capital.

Authorities in Baghdad also found at least 35 bodies, many of them handcuffed and shot several times.

At least 28 Iraqis died in violence outside the capital yesterday, including eight men who were shot by Iraqi army soldiers as they allegedly stole oil from a pipeline near the northern city of Kirkuk.

U.S. military officials said a soldier died yesterday of wounds sustained Wednesday, bringing that day's tally to 11 deaths.

The deaths include five Task Force Lightning soldiers killed by a bomb that exploded near their vehicle in Kirkuk province, and six servicemen who died from combat wounds in Anbar province: four soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, a Marine from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group and a Marine from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Force.

A Marine assigned to Task Force Military Police, 1st Expeditionary Force died Wednesday from noncombat injuries.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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