Iraq clamped a raft of draconian new security rules on its war-torn capital on Wednesday amid mystery over the whereabouts of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whom United States officials say has fled to Iran.
US defence officials claimed that the anti-American cleric, the leader of a Shi’ite militia accused of attacking Sunni civilians and American troops, had travelled to Tehran two or three weeks ago.
The firebrand’s aides dismissed the allegations, made by anonymous officials. They said Sadr supports the new Baghdad security plan and that the militias will be disarmed once order is restored.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki confirmed the crackdown had started, hours after the commander of joint Iraqi forces in the capital unveiled a stringent package of emergency measures to quell the bloodshed.
“Today [Wednesday], the Baghdad security plan is in effect,” Maliki told reporters during a visit to the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, south-east of Baghdad.
He denied charges that the plan would favour either Sunni or Shi’ite factions, insisting that it would target armed extremists from either camp.
“If they abide by the law the security plan will protect them.” Maliki said.
“There will be no safe haven for outlaws, even in holy places, because human life is holier. We will drive out all those trespassing on the dignity of man.”
On Tuesday, a televised address by Lieutenant General Abboud Gambar warned: “All those who breach the terms of this decree will be judged under the law on terrorism.”
The first measure announced was the closure of Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria, both of which are accused of allowing weapons and extremists to enter the country.
A senior Iraqi security official said the frontiers were closed late on Tuesday. Three crossing points to Syria and four to Iran are to reopen after 72 hours with reinforced security measures. Others will stay shut indefinitely.
In addition, weapons permits will be suspended for everyone in Baghdad except Iraqi and US-led security forces and registered private security firms.
The city’s nightly curfew will also be extended.
Gambar was placed at the head of a combined police and military force and empowered to crack down on rogue security force units in the capital.
The decree authorises him to “impose necessary restrictions in all public places and centres and clubs and organisations and unions and businesses and institutions and offices to protect citizens and people who work”.
“Searches will be done on public streets, and precautionary measures will be applied on packages, mail, messages and communications and telecommunications equipment,” the general said, reading the decree.
“Security forces will be authorised to block or search public or private property … [and] will have the right to impose travel restrictions on individuals or vehicles.”
Iraqis living in housing belonging to displaced persons will have two weeks to leave or face eviction, he warned.
The mystery over Sadr’s whereabouts added to the political tension.
“We have seen the reports and believe them to be accurate,” a US defence official told Agence France-Presse (AFP), referring to reports in US media that Sadr had left by road for Tehran two or three weeks ago.
But Iran’s state news agency, IRNA, quoted an unnamed official as denying that Sadr had entered the country.
The Pentagon accuses Iran of arming and training Shi’ite factions in Iraq, including “rogue elements” of Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and tension is mounting amid controversy over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Sadr has not been seen publicly in several weeks, but Nassar al-Rubaie, the head of the cleric’s parliamentary bloc, insisted he was “still inside Iraq and working normally” without fear of US forces.
Bassem al-Aathari, an official at Sadr’s office in Najaf, said the cleric is still in the Shi’ite holy city and that if he were to travel abroad it would be announced as in the past.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s nothing,” Rubaie told AFP.
The Pentagon describes the Mahdi Army as the most dangerous single faction in the vicious sectarian war gripping Iraq.
Five extra US combat brigades are to support a joint operation to pacify Baghdad, several parts of which are controlled by Shi’ite and Sunni factions.
On Wednesday, the US military said air strikes killed about 15 insurgent fighters, 10 of whom who were planting roadside bombs south of Baghdad.
“Coalition forces killed an estimated 15 terrorists and prevented two improvised explosive devices from being emplaced during operations in Arab Jabour,” it said.
A child was also wounded. — AFP