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Originally published February 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 14, 2007 at 11:06 AM

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Iraq to seal borders

The Iraqi commander of the Baghdad security crackdown on Tuesday announced a surprising series of measures to stem sectarian violence as...

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraqi commander of the Baghdad security crackdown on Tuesday announced a surprising series of measures to stem sectarian violence as word emerged that anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had left the country ahead of the arrival of 21,500 U.S. troops sent by President Bush in the drive to pacify the capital.

A senior U.S. official said Tuesday the firebrand Shiite militia leader had left Iraq some weeks ago for neighboring Iran and is believed to be in Tehran, where he has family. But aides to al-Sadr told Reuters today that he remained in Iraq.

In an address to the nation on behalf of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar ordered the return of unlawfully seized homes in an effort to counter the displacement and agony caused by sectarian cleansing of mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Also among 14 measures meant to help retake the country from terrorists and outlaws -- including those in uniform -- the army and police were ordered to submit to checkpoints, and borders with Syria and Iran were temporarily closed.

The decree also authorizes cordoning off neighborhoods, house-to-house searches, emergency detentions and electronic eavesdropping. Gambar also said Baghdad's nighttime curfew would be expanded by an hour, and permits allowing civilians to carry weapons in public would be suspended during all of the operation, which he suggested could last weeks.

The U.S. military announced last week that the security clampdown had already begun, although Iraqis have seen little evidence of that. President Bush has committed 21,500 more Americans to the operation, which is expected to involve a total of 90,000 Iraqi and U.S. soldiers.

Gambar, a Shiite and a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War when he served in Saddam Hussein's army, said security forces also plan to monitor mail, parcels, telegrams and wireless communication devices during the operation.

His address suggested Iraqi authorities plan to exercise wide powers while waging the crackdown. A criminal court, for example, will hold emergency hearings on cases such as murder, theft, rape, kidnapping, damaging public property and the possession and transfer of arms and ammunition, he said.

He said security forces would try to avoid intruding in places of worship but added that they would do so in "cases of extreme emergencies when it is feared that these places pose a threat to the lives of citizens or if they are used for unlawful purposes." U.S. and Iraqi authorities have often said Sunni Arab insurgents use mosques to store arms or fire at troops.

A suicide truck bombing Tuesday was the latest in a series of attacks since Bush and al-Maliki announced more than a month ago that they would launch the security crackdown.

Gambar's announcement came hours after the bomber struck a government warehouse in a mainly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of the capital, killing at least 15 people and wounding 27, according to police and hospital officials. A parked car bomb also exploded near a bakery in another Shiite area, killing four people and wounding four, police said.

The general did not say when the borders would close, but another official said it was expected within two days. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that the borders would only partly reopen after the 72-hour closing. The United States has long charged that Iran and Syria let extremists use their territory to slip into Iraq to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians.

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The official in Washington said al-Sadr's move to Iran is not believed to be permanent. Al-Sadr left his Baghdad stronghold possibly because of fractures in his political and militia operations, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Conflicting reports over the cleric's location emerged today, with Nassar al-Rubaei, head of the Sadrist bloc in Iraq's parliament, and a second aide, who declined to be identified, saying al-Sadr remained in Iraq.

The militia of al-Sadr, whose departure was reported by several television networks, is widely seen as the main threat to Iraq's unity and high on the list of targets for the Baghdad security operation. The campaign is widely seen as possibly the U.S. military's final attempt to calm the city.

In other violence, an American soldier died in combat Sunday in volatile Anbar province, west of Baghdad, the U.S. military announced, raising to 42 the number of American personnel killed this month.

Iraqi police reported finding 28 bullet-riddled bodies showing signs of torture. Most of the bodies turned up in Baghdad.

Also

Iran explosion: A car-bomb explosion killed at least 18 members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards who were riding a bus near Zahedan in southeastern Iran, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported today.

Hostile fire: A Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter that crashed last week northwest of Baghdad, killing all seven on board, was shot down, the U.S. military said today. Officials initially said they believed it was mechanical failure.

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