- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — The leader of al Qaeda in Iraq was wounded and an aide was killed in a clash yesterday with Iraqi forces north of Baghdad, an Interior Ministry spokesman said, as U.S. and Iraqi forces moved into a Sunni neighborhood in southern Baghdad as part of a new security sweep.

In southern Iraq, British troops sealed off the border with Iran to prevent weapons smuggling.

The clash occurred near Balad, a major U.S. base about 50 miles north of the capital, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said.

Gen. Khalaf said al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub Masri was wounded and his aide, identified as Abu Abdullah al-Majemaai, was killed.

Gen. Khalaf declined to say how Iraqi forces knew Masri had been injured, and there was no report on the incident from U.S. authorities.

Masri took over the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after its charismatic leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. air strike in June in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, an adviser to Iraq’s prime minister said yesterday that Muqtada al-Sadr is in Iran but denied that the radical Shi’ite cleric had fled because of fear of arrest during an escalating security crackdown.

Sami al-Askari said Sheik al-Sadr traveled to Iran by land “a few days ago,” but the adviser gave no details on how long he would stay. A member of Sheik al-Sadr’s bloc in parliament, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals, said he left three weeks ago.

“I confirm that Muqtada al-Sadr is in Iran on a visit,” Mr. al-Askari said, “but I deny that his visit is a flight.”

The chief U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, said that Sheik al-Sadr “is not in the country” and that “all indications are, in fact, that he is in Iran.” Gen. Caldwell said U.S. authorities have been tracking Sheik al-Sadr’s movements for months. He would not speculate on whether the cleric had fled to escape the crackdown.

Helicopters buzzed overhead yesterday as a U.S.-Iraqi force headed into the Dora neighborhood — a longtime Sunni militant area. U.S. troops searched three Shi’ite areas Wednesday, meeting little resistance in the house-to-house mission.

Defying the operation, two parked car bombs struck Dora near a major intersection with a highway leading to Shi’ite areas in the south, killing at least four civilians and wounding 15, police said.

The blasts occurred about 80 yards from an Iraqi checkpoint on the southern edge of the district as patrols were passing, but no Iraqi forces were reported hurt.

Later, a car bomb exploded in the northeastern Baghdad district of Sadr City, killing three and injuring 17, police said.

In southern Iraq, security forces closed two border points with Iran at al-Sheeb and Shalamcha — blocking the gates with large metal containers — and expanded coastal patrols to monitor maritime traffic into southern Iraq. Authorities also set up checkpoints around Basra and were targeting the most dangerous areas in Iraq’s second-largest city, about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. The British military said the operation would last 72 hours.

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