Top Shiite aide is captured in raid

U.S., Iraqi troops arrest suspect in torture and deaths of civilians

January 20, 2007|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. and Iraqi troops arrested a top Shiite official, who is suspected of torturing and killing civilians, during a raid in Baghdad yesterday.

The capture of the man Iraqi officials identified as Sheik Abdul Darraji, a top aide of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, comes on the heels of a promised crackdown on Shiite militia by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

A spokesman for al-Sadr's office in Najaf quickly condemned the operation, promising countrywide demonstrations.

"Let the Americans know that in these provocative acts against the Sadr movement they are playing with fire," said Sheik Abdalrazaq Nidawi. "And we will wait for the orders of Sayid Muqtada regarding the arrest."

A recently unveiled Baghdad security plan involving the deployment of additional U.S. troops hinges on whether Iraqi security forces can - or will - clamp down on Shiite militias, such as al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Gunmen loyal to al-Sadr have long been suspected of fomenting much of the violence in the capital.

However, the significance of Darraji's arrest remains unclear. In the past, al-Maliki's government has forced U.S. troops to release suspected militiamen affiliated with al-Sadr, whom he relies on for political support. And there seemed to be confusion yesterday about whether al-Maliki had been informed of the raid. One spokesman told the Al Arabiya network that the operation took place without the prime minister's knowledge. But another al-Maliki official said in a telephone interview that the Iraqi government supported the arrest.

The U.S. military did not name Darraji but said in a statement that special Iraqi army forces and their U.S. advisers detained "a high-level, illegal armed group leader" in an eastern Baghdad neighborhood.

Sadr officials and an Iraqi government spokesman said the captured man was Darriji.

As well as leading a group suspected of torturing and killing Iraqi civilians, Darraji is suspected of having been involved in assassinating Iraqi security forces and government officials, the U.S. military said in a statement.

"He is believed to be affiliated with Abu Dura and other Baghdad death squad commanders," the military said.

The leader known as Abu Dura is a notorious figure in Sadr City, apparently responsible for numerous deaths and the most grisly torture. By several accounts, Abu Dura has split with al-Sadr and is running a renegade militia cell.

Shiite clerics used their pulpits during prayers yesterday to criticize the arrest.

Sayid Muhannad Musawi told worshipers in Sadr City that the arrest was part of a Bush administration strategy to "cover their failure in Iraq" and called on the Iraqi government to release the detainees.

"We say to the government that we are not terrorists," said Musawi, responding to a recent statement by al-Maliki that his government had arrested 400 militiamen affiliated with al-Sadr. "We are not killers. Rather, we defend innocent citizens."

Also yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates arrived in Iraq, touching down in the southern city of Basra, where Shiite militias are engaged in a brutal campaign against the 7,000 or so British forces there.

Britain has consolidated forces in a few bases around the city and plans a significant troop drawdown this year.

Gates met with Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, as well as Maj. Gen. Jonathan Shaw, commander of the British troops here.

In recent days, a palace housing British forces has come under heavy rocket bombardment. Attackers have also planted mines in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, targeting river patrols, and dug in roadside bombs aimed at convoys driving through the city.

A spokeswoman for the British forces in Basra said six British troops were injured and two vehicles destroyed in an attack on their base that included rocket and machine-gun fire.

In a news conference with Gates at Tallil Air Base, near the ancient city of Ur, Casey suggested that some of the extra troops President Bush is sending could start returning home by late summer but that it depended on the Iraqi government's fulfilling its pledges of adding troops and taking an aggressive approach to sectarian militias and death squads, the Associated Press reported.

Gates added, "Our goal is an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself, and govern itself and live free from the scourge of extremism."

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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