- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

1:34 p.m.

BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested one of Muqtada al-Sadr’s top aides today in Baghdad, his office said, as pressure increased on the radical Shi’ite cleric’s militia ahead of a planned security crackdown in the capital.

An adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, denied the government knew in advance about the raid, in which Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji was captured, and said the detention was not part of the new operation aimed at quelling Baghdad’s sectarian violence.

“There was no coordination with the Iraqi political leadership, and this arrest was not part of the new security plan,” the adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, told Al Arabiya television. “Coordination with the Iraqi political leadership is needed before conducting such operations that draw popular reactions.”

His comments reflected the differences between the United States and Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government on how to deal with the Shi’ite militias that have been blamed for much of the recent violence, particularly the killings that have left dozens of tortured and bullet-riddled bodies daily in Baghdad and elsewhere.

The raid came as Defense Secretary Robert Gates began his second trip to Iraq in less than a month, arriving in the southern city of Basra to consult with British and other allied commanders.

Sheik al-Darraji was captured, and his guard was killed in a raid on a mosque complex in eastern Baghdad, according to senior officials with the cleric’s movement.

The U.S. military said special Iraqi army forces operating with coalition advisers captured a high-level illegal armed group leader in Baladiyat, an eastern neighborhood near Sheik al-Sadr’s stronghold. It said the main suspect was involved in the kidnapping, torture and murder of civilians as well as the assassination of Iraqi security forces and government officials.

However, Sheik al-Sadr’s office said Sheik al-Darraji was the movement’s media director in Baghdad and demanded his immediate release.

“We strongly condemn this cowardly act,” said Sheik Abdul-Zahra al-Suweiadi, a senior al-Sadr aide in Baghdad.

Sheik al-Sadr said in an interview with an Italian newspaper published today that the crackdown already had begun and that 400 of his men had been arrested, confirming an earlier statement by Mr. al-Maliki. La Repubblica also quoted the cleric as saying he fears for his life and stays constantly on the move.

Sheik al-Sadr told the newspaper his militias would not fight back during the Muslim holy month of Muharram, saying it was against the faith to kill at that time. Muharram starts today for Sunnis and tomorrow for Shi’ites.

“Let them kill us. For a true believer, there is no better moment than this to die: Heaven is ensured,” he was quoted as saying. “After Muharram, we’ll see.”

Militia commanders have said the Shiite prime minister has stopped protecting the fighters under pressure from Washington and have described pinpoint raids in which at least five top commanders of similar standing were captured or killed in recent months.

In another development, a leading Sunni insurgent and 10 of his deputies also were captured in a raid in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, according to state-run Al Iraqiya TV station, which cited an unidentified Interior Ministry official. The report said Tami al-Majmaie was a leading commander of the Omar Brigades.

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