Iraqi Official Detained

Thursday, February 8th 2007, 5:40 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Iraqi forces Thursday detained a senior Health Ministry official accused of corruption and helping to funnel millions of dollars to Shiite militiamen blamed for much of the recent sectarian violence in the capital, the U.S. military said.

The raid was the latest in a crackdown on radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, coming a day after the chief U.S. military spokesman said a security sweep to stop the rampant attacks in the capital was under way.

In Washington, a military official said it was the highest-level arrest so far and provided an example of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's assertion that nobody and no place will be exempt from the crackdown.

Maj. Gen. Abdullah Khamis, the Iraq army commander for eastern Baghdad, said the arrest of the Health Ministry official was not part of the security operation, which he said would be different from two previous attempts that failed to pacify the capital.

``The elements of the new plan will be completely different in all aspects from the previous plans,'' he said. ``It will be comprehensive ... it will enjoy political support.''

West of Baghdad, a U.S. airstrike killed 13 insurgents in a raid on two safe houses where intelligence showed foreign fighters were assembled near Amiriyah, the military said. Five militants were detained and a weapons cache was found in an initial raid on a target near the safe houses.

Police and hospital officials in the area offered a conflicting account, saying the airstrike hit the village of Zaidan south of Abu Ghraib and flattened four houses, killing 45 people, including women, children and old people.

An Associated Press photo showed the body of a boy in the back of a pickup truck at the nearby Fallujah hospital and people there said he was a victim of the Zaydan airstrike. Other photos showed several wounded children being treated in the hospital.

Amiriyah is in volatile Anbar province, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad where hundreds of U.S. troops have been killed.

At least 43 other people were killed or found dead in Iraq. Car bombs struck Shiite targets in Baghdad and south of the capital.

The military also said four U.S. Marines were killed Wednesday in fighting in Anbar province. The deaths raised to at least 3,114 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an AP count.

The U.S. Embassy, meanwhile, said U.S. officials were investigating a previously undisclosed Jan. 31 incident involving a civilian helicopter. A military official in Washington said the helicopter either crashed or was forced to land by gunfire. The passengers and crew were rescued by another U.S. helicopter, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

If confirmed, it would be the sixth helicopter to crash or be forced down in Iraq since Jan. 20, prompting the U.S. military to review flight operations. The most recent crash occurred Wednesday when a Marine CH-46 Sea Knight went down northwest of Baghdad, killing seven people.

Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, told a group of government officials in Washington on Thursday that the military did not believe the Sea Knight was shot down. An Iraqi air force officer said, however, that it was shot down with a missile. An al-Qaida-linked Sunni group claimed responsibility.

The military statement did not identify the official detained Thursday, but a ministry spokesman said earlier that U.S. and Iraqi forces had seized deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili, an al-Sadr supporter, from his office in northern Baghdad.

A large white boot print was left on the bullet-pocked office door, which apparently had been kicked in by the troops, and shattered glass and overturned computers and phones were scattered on the floor.

The Shiite Health Minister Ali al-Shemari, who also has been linked to al-Sadr, and several other members of the movement denounced the raid.

``This is a violation of Iraq's sovereignty,'' he said. ``They should have a court order to carry out a raid like this.''

The detainee was implicated in the deaths of several ministry officials, including the director-general in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, the military said.

He reportedly orchestrated several kickback schemes related to inflated contracts for equipment and services, with millions of dollars allegedly funneled to the Mahdi Army militia that is loyal to al-Sadr, according to the statement.

The official also was suspected of providing large-scale employment of militia members who used Health Ministry facilities and services for ``sectarian kidnapping and murder,'' the military said.

Joint U.S.-Iraqi forces stormed the Health Ministry compound early Thursday, causing its employees to flee, spokesman Qassim Yahya said.

One of al-Zamili's bodyguards said he heard gunshots, then the Americans asked him to step aside and approached the deputy health minister, who introduced himself by name and title. A U.S. soldier told al-Zamili he was on a list of wanted names and handcuffed him before leading him away, the bodyguard said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

In the deadliest attack Thursday, a parked car bomb exploded at a meat market in the predominantly Shiite town of Aziziyah, 56 miles south of Baghdad, killing 20 people and wounding 45, police said.

Another parked car bomb tore through a minibus in the mainly Shiite Amin neighborhood of southeastern Baghdad, killing seven passengers and wounding 10, police said. The blast blew out the windows of at least one car parked nearby and left piles of rubble and ashes that were being cleared away by street sweepers as the burned out frame of the bus stood nearby.

Baghdad's streets have been tense as U.S. officials confirmed the new security operation was under way. U.S. armor rushed through streets and Iraqi armored personnel carriers guarded bridges and major intersections.

New coils of barbed-wire and blast barriers marked checkpoints that caused traffic bottlenecks. U.S. Apache helicopters flew over parts of the city where they hadn't been seen before. Gunfire still rang out and some residents said they doubted life would get better.

``Nothing will work; it's too late,'' said Hashem al-Moussawi, a resident of the Sadr City Shiite enclave who was badly wounded in a bombing in December.

The chief U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, said Wednesday the Baghdad security operation would be implemented gradually. It is the third attempt by al-Maliki and his U.S. backers to pacify Baghdad since the Shiite leader came to office in May. The operation, which will involve about 90,000 Iraqi and American troops, was seen by many as a last chance to curb Iraq's sectarian war.