BAGHDAD - U.S. and Iraqi forces detained nearly 200 people during operations that targeted two predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhoods during Friday prayer services, the U.S. military said Saturday.
The searches occurred between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on the Muslim sabbath in the Bayaa and Amal sectors of Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed a prayer service that was being held in an office belonging to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and detained several of the participants.
More than 500 people were questioned, the military said, and a weapons cache was found near the office.
A military spokesmen stressed that the raid had been on an office and not on a mosque. U.S. forces "would not go into a mosque," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, the spokesman for military operations in Baghdad. "We do not want to offend the very people our primary mission here is to protect."
But the timing of the searches and the targeting of Shiite areas touched several nerves in a country where sectarian rivalries are deadly. The symbolism, too, was strong. Saddam Hussein banned Shiites from praying publicly, and one of the first acts of massive celebration, on the first Friday after U.S. troops helped topple a huge Saddam statue in central Baghdad, was a massive outdoor Shiite prayer service in Baghdad's Sadr City district.
In Basra, Iraqi forces have banned public areas from being used for prayer in the aftermath of a security crackdown on Sadr's forces, and on Friday, they killed at least one student when they opened fire on a group that appeared to be headed to pray in a public area.
"These actions could open a new page of unstableness in Baghdad if the government and American forces continue targeting prayers," said Sheik Salah al Obaidi, Sadr's top spokesman. "These actions against our prayers is a new step of government aggression against our people." He said detentions during prayer "minimizes the Sadrists."
Bayaa and Amal also are strongholds of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Abu Zahra was one of those arrested while attending Friday prayer at the Sadr office in Amal. He said joint forces entered the building during the beginning of a speech before prayer and started kicking in doors. Iraqi men in attendance shouted in protest, he said. The prayer was canceled and the sheikh that leads the prayer stopped his speech, he said. Forces searched the building, then detained individuals and rounded them up into a large truck, Zahra said.
Soldiers tied their hands and blindfolded those that were detained, he said. They were made to stand for several hours but were provided snacks and drinks. The soldiers took their pictures, asked their names and addresses and assigned them numbers.
"Even if the American and the National Police put us near the wall and shot us, no one would care," said Zahra. "The incident is an insult to our dignity. The Americans are the masters and Iraqis are only followers whose words have no value."
Of those questioned in Amal, Iraqi forces detained up to 128 individuals and U.S. forces detained 40 others. Of the 40, five were on a special criminal list and 35 were being detained for further questioning, Stover said.
In Bayaa up to 25 individuals remain detained, according to an Iraqi military official.
(Ismail reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed.)