Thursday, February 8, 2007

11:51 a.m.

BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces today detained a senior Health Ministry official accused of corruption and helping to funnel millions of dollars to Shi’ite militiamen blamed for much of the recent sectarian violence in the capital, the U.S. military said.

The raid was the latest in a crackdown on radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, coming a day after the chief U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said a security sweep to stop the rampant attacks in the capital was under way.

Violence was unrelenting today, with car bombs striking Shi’ite targets in Baghdad and south of the capital. At least 43 persons were killed or found dead in Iraq.

The military also announced that four U.S. Marines were killed yesterday in fighting in Anbar province, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad.

The military statement did not identify the detained official, but a ministry spokesman said earlier that U.S. and Iraqi forces had seized Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili, an al-Sadr supporter, from his first-floor office in northern Baghdad.

A large white boot print was left on the bullet-pocked office door, which apparently had been kicked in by the troops, and shattered glass as well as overturned computers and phones were scattered on the floor.

The Shi’ite Health Minister Ali al-Shemari, who also has been linked to Sheik al-Sadr, and several other members of the movement 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.”

The detainee was implicated in the deaths of several ministry officials, including the director-general in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, the military said.

He reportedly orchestrated several kickback schemes related to inflated contracts for equipment and services, with millions of dollars allegedly funneled to the Mahdi Army militia that is loyal to Sheik al-Sadr, according to the statement.

The official also was suspected of providing large-scale employment of militia members who used Health Ministry facilities and services for “sectarian kidnapping and murder,” the military said.

Joint U.S.-Iraqi forces stormed the Health Ministry compound early today, causing all the employees to flee, spokesman Qassim Yahya said.

One of Mr. al-Zamili’s bodyguards said he heard gunshots, then the Americans asked him to step aside and approached the deputy health minister, who introduced himself by name and title. A U.S. soldier told Mr. al-Zamili he was on a list of wanted names and handcuffed him before leading him away, the bodyguard said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

The U.S. Embassy, meanwhile, said U.S. officials were investigating a Jan. 31 incident involving a civilian helicopter after the New York times reported that insurgents had brought the chopper down with ground fire during a flight between Hillah and Baghdad.

If confirmed, it would be the sixth helicopter to crash in Iraq since Jan. 20, prompting the U.S. military to review flight operations. The most recent crash occurred yesterday when a CH-46 Sea Knight went down northwest of Baghdad, killing seven persons.

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