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Security Forces Sweep Baghdad in Search of Insurgents

January 19, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Borzou Daragahi, welcome. Tell us about this reported crackdown that’s been going on, on elements of the Mahdi Army. There have been reports that 400 people have been arrested. What’s going on?

BORZOU DARAGAHI, Los Angeles Times: Well, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times and a couple other news agencies this week, said that 400 Mahdi Army militia members had been arrested. He didn’t specify in what period of time; he didn’t specify where.

I’m sure that, over the past few months, 400 people have been arrested. They’re often arrested and released, almost immediately, or they’ll be held for a little while and let go.

There is, however, word of an imminent crackdown on Sadr City and other strongholds of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. And everyone is kind of bracing for that. Today, there was this arrest of a sheik, Sheik Darraji, who is a cleric and often acts as a Muqtada spokesman in Baghdad.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this at least reported crackdown that’s coming in Sadr City, who’s leading that effort? Is it the Iraqis or the Americans?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, ostensibly it’s the Iraqis. According to U.S. officials, the Iraqis have taken a lead role in this imminent crackdown. They have been the ones who have been planning the operations.

But the strategy, as most Iraqi and U.S. officials will say, was from Washington an attempt to crack down on the Shiite militias who are considered a major component in the sectarian civil war here.

Maliki's role in the crackdown

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that, in terms of what's been going on up until now, that there's less here than meets the eye or than Maliki had said about what's happened already?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is in a very, very tight situation. On the one hand, he has to appear to be cracking down on Shiite militiamen as vehemently as his government has been cracking down on Sunni insurgents.

On the other hand, these Shiite militiamen, the Shiite community, is a major part of his base, of his support. So he has to be very careful. With what's going on recently, there hasn't been a lot, quite candidly. There hasn't been a lot of real attempts to crack down on them, on the Shiite militiamen.

What has been happening, though, is the Shiite militiamen essentially are fading into the background, upon orders from their leadership to stand down, go into hiding, keep a lower profile. We have reports of Shiite militia safe houses suddenly emptying out, as the militiamen realize that there is a crackdown coming, and basically they go into the countryside or into other locations.

The status of security operations

MARGARET WARNER: So has there been any visible up-tick in the activities of the Iraqi military, to go out and confront and arrest members of these Shiite militias?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: We have not seen anything on the scale of what they're talking about, which is a possible house-to-house searches for weapons and militants. This is what is rumored that's going to happen.

We have not seen any sign of that at this point. I will say that Sadr City and the city in general has gotten a lot quieter lately and that the number of dead bodies, the number of -- the daily crop, harvest, of apparent Sunni civilians killed in execution-style killings associated with Shiite death squads, has dropped precipitously over the past few days.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying things might get quieter, but it doesn't mean that the Mahdi Army has been rounded up or arrested?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I mean, the Mahdi Army is part of a vast social movement. It's part of a vast political movement. Perhaps there are some militant hot heads that will be arrested.

And I think that even Muqtada al-Sadr will be relieved when they are taken off the streets, because there are some people in his organization who purport to be members of his organization who are acting as freelancers, as loose cannons, and he would like to see them off the street.

But the primary fundamental conflict in Iraq between Sunni and Shia remain, and that remains to be resolved.

From Muqtada al-Sadr's view

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the man who was arrested today, how close was he really to Sadr, and how significant a figure is he?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: I think he's very close to Muqtada al-Sadr. He often acts as his spokesman. He leads Friday prayers occasionally. He's someone who speaks in the name of the Sadr organization.

However, I mean, I seriously doubt he was a operations guy. I mean, this is a guy who talks to the media all the time. He's on Arabic-language television all the time. We know him.

It would be very doubtful -- I would be very skeptical if this was a guy who's in charge of going out and killing groups of Sunni people, as has been alleged by the U.S. military.

MARGARET WARNER: And what has Sadr himself -- how has he reacted?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Sadr has condemned the attack. He has condemned the arrest of this guy, as well as a couple of other people, saying that he had no involvement in militant activity.

And the Iraqi government, as well, has denied any government knowledge of this raid -- they captured Abdul Hadi al-Darraji -- saying that it was not part of the new operation, that the Iraqis and the Americans have cooked up.

MARGARET WARNER: And has Sadr been seen in public lately?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Sadr has not been seen in public lately. He's apparently in hiding. He has told people that he's a little worried about what's going to happen to him and his family. And he's worried about an assassination attempt against himself.

MARGARET WARNER: Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, thank you so much.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure.