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Baghdad security plan to restrict weapons, close borders

BAGHDAD, Iraq _The Iraqi government announced new measures Tuesday to retake the country from terrorists and outlaws, including those in uniform, by ordering the army and police to submit to checkpoints, sharply curtailing weapons in public and temporarily closing the borders with Syria and Iran.

The 14-point decree, which also authorizes cordons, house-to-house searches, emergency detentions and electronic eavesdropping, was signed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and read on national television by his handpicked Baghdad security chief, Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar.

Qanbar, a Shiite Muslim and al-Maliki ally whose appointment wasn't welcomed by American officials, faced the nation in a red beret and an Iraqi officer's uniform, giving an air of Saddam Hussein-era authority to the decree.

At least one Sunni opposition leader welcomed the plan, but many Baghdad residents greeted it with skepticism. It remains to be seen whether Iraqi forces, some of them heavily infiltrated by Shiite militiamen, will enforce it even-handedly and whether both Shiite and Sunni gunmen will simply melt into the population until the crackdown passes.

Four of the 14 measures are intended to combat the displacement and agony caused by sectarian cleansing of mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad. It orders squatters to vacate the homes of displaced people within 15 days and to return them to the condition in which they found them.

Iraq's army and police and U.S.-led multinational forces, will jointly operate the new checkpoints. Speaking to fears that militias are operating as police under cover of law, the new law requires interior and defense ministry convoys to submit to checkpoints and to identify themselves in advance.

Security forces also will be forbidden to take government vehicles home without authorization. Sectarian kidnappings in which victims end up dead or missing have sometimes been carried out with police vehicles.

All border crossings to Syria and Iran are supposed to be closed for 72 hours, although it isn't clear that there are enough Iraqi troops to do the job. The Iraq-Iran border post at Sheeb, in Maysan province, will be restricted for 60 days. U.S. officials this week charged that Iran is sending weapons, including bombs that can penetrate armored vehicles, to Shiite militias in Iraq.

The decree also suspends permits for carrying guns and ammunition outside of homes for all but government forces and security contractors without special permission.

Security forces will be authorized to confiscate vehicles with dark windows or no license plates.

Hareth al-Obeidi of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, the leading group in opposition to al-Maliki in parliament, welcomed the decree, at least the third security plan for Baghdad since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

"I think it will work this time," he said. "It has many positive elements." He cited the monitoring of police and army by U.S. forces and a pledge that human rights advocates will monitor enforcement and punishment.

Reaction in neighborhoods was mixed.

Youssef al-Musawi, a 27-year-old university engineering instructor who lives in the Shiite slums of Sadr City, said he was "filled with joy" after listening to Qanbar, though he also wanted to see how the plan would be implemented.

"We see lots of things that we think are wrong, like dark windows on vehicles that don't have plate numbers. God knows what's inside these cars. No one used to stop them, but now hopefully they will do that."

Al-Musawi said leaders of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that controls Sadr City, are already disappearing. Late Tuesday, ABC News quoted U.S. officials as saying that Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr had fled to Iran several weeks ago.

"The talk and rumors here is that they believe the tornado is coming," al-Musawi said. "They are not driving around anymore, trying to tell the people that they are the protectors."

That's what bothers Huda Mustafa, 30, whose Sunni family was displaced from the mixed west Baghdad neighborhood of Huriya. Mustafa couldn't watch the Tuesday broadcast because her electricity was off, but she was unhappy about all the notice of the security plan.

"It has already failed because we know all the leaders of the militia, especially the al-Mahdi Army militia, have left the areas they were hiding in. The government keeps announcing this plan and they never surprise anyone," said Mustafa, a government tourism office worker.

Violence continued to convulse the city and provinces. Around 10:15 a.m. Tuesday in the west Baghdad neighborhood of Al Iskan, a suicide bomber drove a truck bomb into a government warehouse. The warehouse distributes food to needy families, and the truck's explosives were hidden beneath food.

The bomber killed 16 people and injured 40.

In the town of Kharnabat in the tense province of Diyala, an empty coffin with a hidden bomb was delivered to a local mosque. Suspecting a trick, two of the mosque's guards called police, provoking a confrontation with the men who brought the coffin. Two of the guards were killed and another was kidnapped. Police successfully defused the bomb.


(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Mohammed al-Dulaimy in Baghdad contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.