38 alleged cult members detained in Iraq

Raids target Heaven's Army, a Shiite Muslim group involved in a battle last month.

Los Angeles Times/February 17, 2007
By Borzou Daragahi

Baghdad — Iraqi forces early Friday rounded up 38 alleged members of a Shiite Muslim cult involved in a battle last month with Iraqi and U.S. troops that left hundreds dead and injured.

Three contingents of Iraqi police raided several neighborhoods in the southern Iraqi city of Hillah and detained members of a mysterious religious group called Heaven's Army, said Brig. Gen. Abbas Jabouri, commander of the Hillah-based Scorpion Brigades.

Police also seized weapons, books and leaflets associated with the group.

Jabouri said the Hillah raids were an extension of a highly vaunted Iraqi and U.S. security crackdown in Baghdad. Though the operation is meant to stem sectarian violence and restore calm primarily in the capital, similar offensives have been launched in volatile sections of southern Iraq, including Basra.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and President Bush discussed the Baghdad security plan Friday in a videoconference, the Iraqi government said. According to a news release, Maliki said that the plan had achieved "tremendous success" in its first few days and that Bush had vowed continued U.S. support for the operation.

The security crackdown, which began Tuesday evening, calls for raiding neighborhoods in search of weapons and militia leaders before establishing small community bases staffed by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

"Together, with our Iraqi counterparts, we will maintain a full-time presence on the streets," Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., commander of U.S.-led forces in Baghdad, told reporters. "We'll do this by building and manning joint security stations. The effort to establish these joint security stations is well underway."

On Friday morning, U.S. and Iraqi forces in the capital raided two apartment buildings suspected of housing militia leaders in the mostly Shiite eastern New Baghdad district. Authorities arrested at least four suspects and seized 12 weapons, cellphones, computers and documents.

Joint forces also continued raiding the Shiite-dominated Shaab district of north Baghdad, arresting six suspected insurgents and seizing a dozen AK-47s, 25 shotguns and wires that may have been intended for use in roadside bombs.

Iraqi army units with bomb-sniffing dogs set up checkpoints and searched vehicles.

British and Iraqi troops in Basra clashed with gunmen during raids early Friday in the north part of the port city. Suspected insurgents attacked the security forces with rockets and mortar rounds, said Maj. David Gale of the British army. At least six gunmen were injured, he said.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope that ramping up security will help salvage a country coming undone under the weight of an insurgency, sectarian violence and grinding poverty. Violence has slowed slightly since the offensive began.

In Baghdad, a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol Friday killed a soldier. Authorities found 11 unidentified bodies in the capital, continuing a weeks-long decline in apparent sectarian death squad killings since Iraqi officials began pressuring Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to rein in his Al Mahdi militia.

"We've seen a substantial reduction in attacks that we would attribute directly to" the Sadr militia, Fil said. "Whether that's a result of strategy or a power vacuum, I can't say."

Sadr is nominal leader of the Al Mahdi, a major component in the country's tit-for-tat sectarian violence. Questions continued about his whereabouts, with U.S. and Iraqi officials saying he's in Iran and his deputies insisting that he remains in his Najaf home.

During Friday prayers in east Baghdad, a Shiite cleric and loyalist appeared to leave the question unresolved.

"I just came from Najaf," Sheik Mohaned Gharawi told followers on the streets. "Muqtada Sadr is in our hearts and minds, and it doesn't matter where he is now for his supporters."

The crowd chanted in unison, "Yes, yes, Muqtada!"

Elsewhere in the country, violence continued. Gunmen in Hillah shot to death a policewoman in her home. A spate of bomb attacks in Kirkuk killed six people and injured nine. One attack targeted the convoy of Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

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