- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

BAGHDAD — U.S.-backed Iraqi forces stormed the Health Ministry and arrested the No. 2 official yesterday, accusing him of diverting millions of dollars to the biggest Shi’ite militia and allowing death squads use of ambulances and government hospitals to carry out kidnappings and killings.

Shi’ite politicians allied with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called the arrest of Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and demanded that the prime minister intervene to win his release.

But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his senior advisers remained silent. Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, is under strong U.S. pressure to crack down on Shi’ite militias and has pledged not to interfere in the security operation to rid Baghdad’s streets of gunmen from both Islamic sects.

The arrest occurred at 9 a.m., an hour after Iraqi government offices generally open. Iraqi troops pushed through the iron gates of the Health Ministry building in northern Baghdad, ordered people to drop to the ground and rushed to Mr. al-Zamili’s ground-floor office, witnesses said.

One of Mr. al-Zamili’s bodyguards said American troops accompanying the force asked everyone to step aside and approached the deputy minister, who introduced himself. A U.S. soldier handcuffed Mr. al-Zamili and led him away, the guard said on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal.

A U.S. military statement did not mention Mr. al-Zamili by name but said Iraqi special troops captured a “senior official” suspected of corruption and links to Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The Health Ministry is among six Cabinet posts controlled by Sheik al-Sadr, an ally of the prime minister.

The statement also said the senior official played a role in the deaths of several ministry officials, including the Sunni director of health in Diyala province. The director, Ali al-Mahdawi, vanished in June after coming to Baghdad for a meeting at the ministry.

According to the statement, Mr. al-Zamili was thought to have siphoned millions of dollars from the ministry to the Mahdi Army “to support sectarian attacks and violence targeting Iraqi citizens.”

The arrest is likely to further strain Mr. al-Maliki’s fragile coalition as it embarks on a high-risk campaign to curb violence in Baghdad.

Nasr al-Rubaie, leader of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, called the arrest a “kidnapping.”

Health Minister Ali al-Shemari also denounced the raid. “This is a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty,” he said. “They should have a court order to carry out a raid like this.”

Meanwhile, at least 104 persons were killed or found dead yesterday in Iraq, including at least 10 Sunni men fatally shot in the village of Rufayaat, just east of Balad.

In the day’s deadliest attack, a bomb in a parked car exploded at a food market in the predominantly Shi’ite town of Aziziyah, 35 miles southeast of Baghdad, killing 20 persons, police said.

Another parked-car bomb tore through a minibus in the mainly Shi’ite Amin neighborhood of southeastern Baghdad, killing seven passengers.

In Anbar province west of Baghdad, a U.S. air strike killed 13 insurgents in a raid on two safe houses where intelligence showed foreign fighters were assembled near Amiriyah, the military said. Police and hospital officials in the area offered a conflicting account, saying the air strike hit the village of Zaidan south of Abu Ghraib and flattened four houses, killing 45 persons, including women, children and seniors.

Also yesterday, the U.S. announced that four Marines were killed the day before in fighting in Anbar, an insurgent stronghold.

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