- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi commander of the Baghdad security crackdown announced yesterday that Iraq will close its borders with Syria and Iran for 72 hours as part of the drive to end the violence that has threatened to divide the capital along sectarian lines.

Ahead of the crackdown, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fled Iraq for Iran some weeks ago and is thought to be in Tehran, where he has family, a senior U.S. official said yesterday.

Addressing the nation on behalf of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar also said that Baghdad’s nighttime curfew would be expanded by an hour and that permits allowing civilians to carry weapons in public would be suspended during the operation, which he suggested could last weeks.

Gen. Gambar made the announcement hours after a suicide truck bomber struck a government warehouse in a mainly Shi’ite Muslim neighborhood of the capital, killing at least 15 persons and wounding 27, police and hospital officials said. A parked car bomb exploded near a bakery in another Shi’ite area, killing four persons and wounding four, police said.

The U.S. military announced that an American soldier died in combat Sunday in the volatile Anbar province, west of Baghdad, raising to 42 the number of U.S. personnel killed this month.

The general did not say when the borders would close, but another official said it was expected within two days. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, added that the borders would reopen only partly after the 72-hour closing.

The United States has long charged that Iran and Syria let extremists use their territory to slip into Iraq to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces as well as civilians.

Iraqi authorities have routinely echoed the U.S. charges against Syria, but they rarely make that accusation against Iran, with which Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government has close relations.

Gen. Gambar said Baghdad’s nighttime curfew would be extended by one hour when the security drive kicks off fully, running from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The U.S. military announced last week that the clampdown had begun, although Iraqis have seen little evidence of that. President Bush has committed 21,500 more Americans to the operation, which is expected to involve 90,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops.

Gen. Gambar said he would report to Mr. al-Maliki weekly to discuss progress in the operation.

His address suggested that Iraqi authorities plan to exercise wide powers while waging the crackdown. A criminal court, for example, will hold emergency hearings on cases involving killing, theft, rape, kidnapping, damage to public property, and possession and transfer of arms and ammunition, he said.

Gen. Gambar, a Shi’ite and a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War under Saddam Hussein, said security forces also plan to monitor mail, parcels, telegrams and wireless communication devices during the operation.

He said security forces would try to avoid intruding in places of worship but added that they would do so in “cases of extreme emergencies when it is feared that these places pose a threat to the lives of citizens or if they are used for unlawful purposes.” U.S. and Iraqi authorities have said that Sunni Arab insurgents use mosques to store arms or fire at troops.

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