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Security forces raid Shi'ite stronghold

Death squad bosses targeted in Sadr City

The predawn US-led raids in Sadr City, which led to at least 16 arrests and left windows broken, appeared to highlight a strategy of pinpoint strikes rather than using a flood of soldiers. (Adil al-Khazali/associated press)

BAGHDAD -- US-led strike forces seized suspected Shi'ite death squad bosses yesterday in raids that tested the fragile bonds between the government and a powerful militia faction allowing the Baghdad security crackdown to move ahead.

The sweeps through the Sadr City slum were part of highly sensitive forays into areas loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has ridiculed the two-week-old campaign for failing to halt bombings by suspected Sunni insurgents against Shi'ite civilians.

Sadr withdrew his powerful Mahdi Army militia from checkpoints and bases under intense government pressure to let the security push go forward. But the US-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also worries that Sadr could pull his support if he feels his militiamen are being squeezed in Baghdad.

The predawn raids appeared to highlight a strategy of pinpoint strikes in Sadr City rather than the flood of soldiers sent into some Sunni districts.

Bombings have not slackened, with at least 10 people killed in blasts around Baghdad yesterday. However, an apparent success of the clampdown can be measured in the morgues: a sharp drop in the number of bullet-riddled bodies found in the streets of the capital, victims of sectarian death squads.

The number of bodies found this month in Baghdad -- most shot and showing signs of torture -- has dropped by nearly 50 percent to 494 as of Monday, compared with 954 in January. The figure stood at 1,222 in December, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press.

"We have seen a decrease in the past three weeks -- a pretty radical decrease," said Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the number two US commander in Iraq.

Many Sunnis have long alleged that most of killings were by Shi'ite militias, such as the Mahdi Army or rogue elements within the Shi'ite-led police.

The US military said the raids targeted "the leadership of several rogue" Mahdi Army cells that "direct and perpetrate sectarian murder" -- an apparent reference to execution-style slayings and torture. At least 16 people were arrested.

Odierno declined to comment on whether there were special tactics governing the Sadr City sweeps. "We will go after anyone who we feel is working against the government of Iraq," he said.

US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell told Al-Arabiya television that forces "will increase our operations in the coming days," but noted that the crackdown in the capital should continue until at least October.

Also yesterday, a roadside bomb southwest of the capital killed three US soldiers assigned to a unit based in Baghdad, the US military said. A fourth American soldier was killed near Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad.

Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, have arrested a suspect in the attempted assassination of Shi'ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, an aide said. The aide said the arrest was made after reviewing security camera video from Monday's blast, which ripped through an awards ceremony at the ministry of public works and killed at least 10 people. Abdul-Mahdi suffered leg injuries.