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Iraqi special forces nab top aide to al-Sadr

By JOSEPH GIORDONO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 20, 2007

American-backed Iraqi special forces arrested a top aide to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, another indication this week that the Iraqi government is — at least publicly — following its new commitment to security regardless of sectarian ties.

The overnight raid was conducted in eastern Baghdad and resulted in the arrest of Sheik Abdul al-Hadi Darraji, the director of Sadr’s main office in Sadr City, Iraqi officials said, adding that the man was captured around 2 a.m. Friday in a mosque.

U.S. military officials did not confirm the man’s identity, but released a statement acknowledging the capture of “a high-level illegal armed group leader.”

The statement accused the man of leading a “punishment committee” that involved kidnappings, murders and torture.

“The suspect is also reportedly involved in the assassination of numerous Iraqi Security Forces members and government officials,” the statement read. “The suspect allegedly leads various illegal armed group operations and is affiliated with illegal armed group cells targeting Iraqi civilians for sectarian attacks and violence.”

Iraqi government officials and U.S. military officials said the raid, which took place in the Baladiat neighborhood of Baghdad, was run by Iraqi troops with U.S. advisers on site.

But some Iraqi government officials on Friday questioned the raid and said they had not been informed beforehand.

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

Sadr’s office demanded his immediate release and denied Darraji was involved in violence, saying he was the group’s media chief. “We strongly condemn this cowardly act,” Sheik Abdul-Zahra al-Suweiadi, a senior Sadr aide in Baghdad, was qouted as saying by The Associated Press.

Sadr was also quoted in an interview with an Italian newspaper on Friday. He confirmed previous reports that 400 Madhi Army members had been arrested and said the militia would not fight during the Muslim holy month of Muharram, which begins Friday for Sunnis and Saturday for Shiites.

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

Sadr’s Madhi Army is the strongest Shiite militia in Iraq and blamed for sectarian killings and kidnappings in eastern Baghdad. Twice in 2004, the militia fought openly with U.S. troops, but since then, Sadr has positioned himself as a political power broker in the Shiite-dominated government.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have been openly critical of the government and Prime Minister Nouri al–Maliki, who was blamed for not cracking down on the militias.

On Wednesday, al-Maliki said Iraqi security forces had arrested some 400 members of the Madhi Army in recent weeks. He also struck back at perceived complaints by American officials, blaming them for not giving enough weapons to arm Iraqi forces.

During the Friday morning raid to capture Darraji, a firefight left one mosque guard dead and resulted in two other people being arrested, Iraqi officials said.