RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Iraqi forces involved in a security plan have begun the new crackdown. Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says the government plans to close Iraq's borders with Iran and Syria for three days. The overnight curfew in Baghdad is being extended by an hour, and new checkpoints have tangled traffic across the city. In addition, U.S. officials have said radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has left Iraq for Iran, possibly to avoid being captured or killed during the crackdown.
NPR's Anne Garrels joins us now from Baghdad.
ANNE GARRELS: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So tell us about this report of Moqtada al-Sadr leaving Iraq. His people are denying it.
GARRELS: Absolutely. They firmly deny it. And they've issued a statement saying he is in Iraq. They don't say where, but they say he's in the country. And probably more important that where he is, is in fact how he and his Mehdi militia are going to respond to the crackdown. His militia is blamed for much of the sectarian strife that erupted after a Shiite shrine was bombed, almost exactly a year ago, by Sunni militants. And since then, you know, the sectarian map of Baghdad has been redrawn as Shiite militiamen have exacted revenge and pushed Sunnis out of mixed neighborhoods.
U.S. officials say Sadr's organization has clearly supported some of these revenge operations against Sunnis, but complicating the issue, they say Sadr has also lost control of many militiamen acting in his name.
MONTAGNE: It's maybe something to remember that three years ago the Iraqi government issued an arrest warrant for Sadr in connection with the murder of another Shiite cleric. Is it possible he could be arrested now, at this point?
GARRELS: No. From what I understand, he is on what's called the no-touch list. U.S. officials understand that capturing or killing Sadr could just make the situation worse. It could turn him into a martyr. But Prime Minister Maliki has lifted his protection of Sadr's aides and militiamen, who were alleged to have carried out kidnappings and killings. A few months ago Maliki balked every time U.S. forces arrested somebody linked to Sadr. Now, U.S. forces have killed or detained hundreds of people from the movement. Last week U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested the deputy health minister, a key Sadr ally. They alleged he was behind killings and kidnappings as well as funneling millions of dollars in government funds to the Mehdi militias. So Sadr's not touchable, but his people are.
MONTAGNE: Does that mean that the U.S. and Iraqi forces will actually go into Sadr City, the slum that is his base of support, as part of this new security plan?
GARRELS: You know that's the $64,000 question. It's a very sensitive issue, and how U.S. and Iraqi forces will deal with the more than two million people in Sadr City is still being discussed. There are negotiations underway. They hope to avoid a big confrontation.
MONTAGNE: then what actually is happening as part of this new plan?
GARRELS: Well it's a slow ramp-up. A lot of the additional Iraqi and American troops are still not here, and those that are working on the ground are still coordinating between the Iraqi police, the Iraqi army and the American forces.
The Iraqi general overseeing the operations has said there will be a stricter crackdown on weapons in Baghdad. Up to now, official convoys or those that look official have largely avoided searches and haven't been stopped at checkpoints. This has allowed renegade groups to operate. Now General Abud promises everyone will be checked. He promises anyone who breaks the law will be detained, promising the already overburdened criminal courts will have extra staff to deal with what's expected to be a lot of new detainees.
He's also ordered that tens of thousands of Baghdad residents who are illegally occupying houses will have to move in the next 15 days. Now this took U.S. officials by surprise. It's extremely controversial. You know, people have fled areas where they've been threatened, and they've taken up residence in abandoned houses in areas where they feel safe. And U.S. officials are saying, you know, it would be nice for everybody to, you know, go back to where they came from, but you've got to create security before you order people out.
MONTAGNE: Anne, thanks very much.
GARRELS: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Anne Garrels speaking from Baghdad.
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