"Air of suspense" grips Baghdad as overnight killings decline
The number of Iraqi civilians killed in Baghdad's sectarian violence fell drastically overnight, an Iraqi military official said today.
The Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The number of Iraqi civilians killed in Baghdad's sectarian violence fell drastically overnight, an Iraqi military official said today, crediting the joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation that began in force just days ago.
Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad commander, said only 10 bodies had been reported by the morgue in the capital, compared to an average of 40 to 50 per day.
"This shows a big reduction in terror and killing operations in Baghdad," he said on Iraqi state television.
Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, also reported a reduction in violence, attributing it to both the increased U.S. and Iraqi security presence and an apparent decision by the militias and insurgents to lay low.
"They're watching us carefully. There's an air of suspense throughout the city. We believe, there's no question about it, that many of these extremists are laying low and watching to see what it is we do and how we do it. How long that will last, we don't know," he said.
A U.S. military spokesman, meanwhile, said there were no indications that the al-Qaida in Iraq leader had been killed or wounded in a raid, contradicting reports from the Iraqi government. Further calling the reports into question, an Iraqi army officer said the al-Qaida leader's deputy -- said to be killed in Thursday's raid north of Baghdad -- has been jailed for a week south of the city.
Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said earlier Friday that terror leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was wounded and an aide killed Thursday in a clash with Iraqi forces near Balad, north of Baghdad.
Khalaf declined to say how Iraqi forces knew al-Masri had been injured, and deputy Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal later said he could not confirm the information.
But spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said the U.S. military had no information to corroborate the account.
"We do not believe that he was either killed or wounded last night," Garver said of al-Masri. He said he also could not confirm any information about the aide.
An Iraqi army officer also said al-Masri's aide, identified as Abu Abdullah al-Majemaai, had been detained on Feb. 9 and remained in custody in a jail near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said he could not comment on al-Masri's whereabouts.
Separately, the U.S. military said a suspected al-Qaida in Iraq cell leader accused in roadside bombs and rocket attacks was detained Thursday in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Al-Masri took over the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq after its charismatic leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike last year in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. In October, false reports surfaced that al-Masri was killed in a raid, and the U.S. military performed DNA tests on a slain militant to see if he was the al-Qaida leader.
Al-Zarqawi was widely believed to have fomented sectarian war through his campaign of brutal suicide attacks against Shiite civilians. The first steps of the security operation display the sectarian divides complicating any plan to calm Baghdad -- which is key to begin stabilizing the rest of the country.
Moussawi, the Iraqi military spokesman, said the 107 displaced families had returned to their homes in the Sunni enclave of Salman Pak, as well as some other areas, although he did not give more details.
The U.S. military said that five suspected militants had been detained and numerous pistols, rifles, AK-47s and small arms munitions seized during searches of more than 3,000 structures since an operation began Tuesday in mainly Shiite northeastern Baghdad. It also said clearing operations were continuing in the predominantly Sunni northern neighborhood of Azamiyah.
Al-Maliki has promised to target Shiite militia and Sunni violence equally as part of the neighborhood-to-neighborhood security sweep that he hopes will end the sectarian violence that has been on the rise since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra.
Sunni cleric Harith al-Obeidi warned the government not to target mosques as part of the military action.
"Harming mosques and innocents are red lines to us," he said. "Mosques are places for worship and are symbols of peace."
Iraqi security officials also said 34 armed men belonging to a messianic Shiite cult were detained near Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
The Soldiers of Heaven, or Jund al-Samaa, cult was involved in a gunbattle last month with Iraqi forces who accused the group of planning to kill Shiite clerics and others in a bid to force the return of the "Hidden Imam" -- a descendant of Islam's Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the 9th century. Shiites believe that he will return one day to bring justice to each.
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