Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has announced the start of the long-awaited security crackdown in Baghdad. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from northern Iraq that the U.S. military is also saying that radical Shi'ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al Sadr has left the country.
In a televised speech in the Shi'ite city Karbala, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki announced the beginning of the new effort to rid Baghdad of chaotic sectarian fighting.
He said, he thinks the message is clear and is defined not by words but by actions. Maliki called the operation the first step in reconciling Iraq's different groups.
Late Tuesday, the Iraqi general in charge of the crackdown, Abboud Gambar, outlined some of the new security measures.
The general says Iraq will close both of its border crossings with Syria and all four checkpoints with Iran.
The general says the closures will be temporary, with most crossings re-opening with better security equipment after 72 hours. He did not say if Iraq's border crossings with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait would be affected.
General Gambar said all people unlawfully occupying homes in Baghdad must return to where they came from within 15 days. Baghdad's rampant sectarian fighting has emptied many neighborhoods of religious and ethnic minorities. Thousands of squatters now occupy abandoned homes.
He also said Baghdad's nighttime curfew will be extended by an hour and he announced new restrictions on carrying weapons.
He says only those authorized to carry weapons will be allowed to do so. Those permitted include American forces, Iraqi defense and interior ministry forces and some licensed private security contractors.
Prime Minister Maliki also spoke Wednesday before a cheering crowd in front of the Shi'ite Karbala mosque.
As the crowd chanted, "Our souls, our blood to you Iraq," the prime minister responded to those urging the government to move more quickly to solve Iraq's problems.
He says a faster approach would be a useless waste of time. He also says Iraq's Shi'ite-majority parliament has approved of the more slow-going approach.
A U.S. military spokesman insists the leader of the Shi'ite militia Mahdi Army, has left Iraq. But Moqtada al-Sadr's office in Najaf denies he fled to Iran because of internal disagreements among his followers. His office said he remains in Najaf, but has reduced public appearances for security reasons.
Major General William Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad that, despite the denials, U.S. officials still believe Sadr left Iraq, but the general refused to say why.
"We will acknowledge that we know he is not in the country and all indications are, in fact, he is in Iran and left sometime last month," he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military says it killed 15 suspected terrorists in operations in the Iraqi capital and detained 27 suspected al-Qaida members in Baghdad and Ramadi.
American officials also confirm the Marine transport helicopter that crashed last week, in al Anbar Province, was shot down by enemy fire. Military officials had initially said the crash, which killed all seven Americans on board, was caused by mechanical problems.
U.S. officials say they are reviewing flying procedures, after losing several helicopters to enemy fire in recent weeks.