Iraq launches plan to secure Baghdad

February 14, 2007|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraqi government launched a plan yesterday to secure a capital descending deeper into chaos as word emerged that radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has left Iraq ahead of the security crackdown.

Lt. Gen. Abud Qanbar, the former naval officer appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to oversee the much-vaunted Baghdad security plan, announced a 72-hour closure of some border crossings along the Iranian and Syrian frontiers, restrictions on civil liberties and the suspension of all weapons licenses except for those issued to authorized security officials and contractors.

"Legal procedures will be taken and strict penalties will be imposed against all those who violate the rules," said Qanbar, reading from a statement broadcast over Iraqi state television.

It was unclear from the presentation how some of the security provisions outlined differed from measures already in place. Observers also questioned why al-Maliki left the announcement to a surrogate.

A senior U.S. official said in Washington yesterday that al-Sadr had left Iraq several weeks ago for neighboring Iran and is believed to be in Tehran, where he has family.

The official said al-Sadr's move is not believed to be permanent. Al-Sadr left his Baghdad stronghold possibly because of fractures in his political and militia operations, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. monitoring activities.

Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia is widely seen as the main threat to Iraq's unity and high on the list of targets for the Baghdad security operation.

The government's plan includes a tightening of the few remaining liberties left for Iraqis in the capital, including an earlier nighttime curfew and closer scrutiny of packages, mail and electronic communications. It imposes unspecified restrictions on gatherings in public places, clubs, companies and organizations "in order to protect citizens and those working in these places."

The plan's supporters defended those restrictive elements as necessary to meet the needs of Iraqis.

"The government has a right to take any procedure to provide security for the people," said Sheik Qusai Abdul-Wahab, a Shiite lawmaker loyal to al-Sadr. "People are demanding security first and last."

Under the plan, Qanbar said his commanders will be authorized to interrogate and arrest all individuals and inspect private property and seize any weapons, presumably without seeking the approval of courts or political leaders. It wasn't clear whether the new provisions changed the existing rules, which allowed each Iraqi family to keep one weapon at home.

The plan includes restrictions on the movements of vehicles and individuals as well as surprise sweeps of roadways, Qanbar said.

It also calls for a tightening of laws for those who commit acts of violence or harbor alleged terrorists and for special court sessions to speedily try offenders.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the Baghdad security plan will stem the country's slide deeper into sectarian civil war and lawlessness. The United States already has begun a move to buttress forces in the violence-torn capital, eventually adding 16,000 service members. Iraqis also have moved additional forces into the capital.

Still, more than three dozen Iraqis were killed or found dead in the capital yesterday. At least 18 were killed and 38 injured in a suicide bombing that targeted a crowd in a mostly Shiite neighborhood waiting on line for monthly rations of flour, sugar and cooking oil. Another car bomb in eastern Baghdad killed four boys near a high school.

Iraqi police found the bodies of at least 20 Iraqis shot dead and dumped in western Baghdad.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times. Wire services contributed to this article.

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