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    Iraq Announces Closure of Iranian, Syrian Border Crossings Ahead of Security Crackdown

    Barry Newhouse

    Iraqi officials have announced they will close all checkpoints on the Iranian and Syrian borders, as part of the new plan to crack down on religious militias and end the rampant sectarian cleansing in the capital. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from northern Iraq that Baghdad's most powerful Shi'ite militia is denying American allegations its leader has fled to Iran.

    Iraqi General Abboud Gambar appeared on national television, Tuesday evening, outlining some of the measures of the new security plan.

    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 after 72 hours. He did not say when the closures would occur, nor if Iraq's border crossings with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait would be affected.

    General Gambar announced 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 the abandoned homes.

    The general also says Baghdad's nighttime curfew will be extended by an hour and he has announced new restrictions on carrying weapons.

    He says only those authorized to carry weapons will be allowed to do so.

    The general says only American forces, Iraqi Defense and Interior Ministry forces and some licensed private security contractors will be allowed to carry weapons.

    In the Shi'ite holy city, Karbala, Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki addressed a crowd chanting: "Our souls, our blood to you Iraq."

    The prime minister pushed back against 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.

    Iraqi officials have leaked details of the new security crackdown for weeks but have refused to say when it will begin.

    In the Shi'ite holy city, Najaf, officials from the powerful Shi'ite militia, Mahdi Army, denied U.S. allegations their leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, has fled to Iran. White House officials said Tuesday Sadr drove to Tehran, in recent weeks, because of a possible fracture between extremists in his Mahdi Army militia and his political bloc. Sadr's office in Najaf said Wednesday that he remains in the city, but has reduced public appearances for security reasons.

    Also Wednesday, the U.S. military said 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.

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