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Baghdad raid and air strikes target "death squads"

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, Oct 25 (Reuters) An overnight raid backed by US air strikes killed four people and wounded 20 in a Shi'ite district of Baghdad, the government said, in a raid the US military said was targeted at a death squad commander.

The assault was launched in sprawling Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mehdi Army militia loyal to firebrand Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry said four people were killed and about 20 wounded.

''Special Iraqi Army forces, supported by coalition advisers, conducted a raid authorised by the government of Iraq...in Sadr City, Baghdad to capture a top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death-squad activity throughout eastern Baghdad,'' the US military said in a statement.

It said the Iraqi forces came under fire and called in US air support.

Asked about the raid at a news conference today, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appeared to distance himself from it, saying there was a lack of coordination. ''We will be seeking a full explanation from the multi-national forces,'' he said.

The raid did not appear to have any connection with the hunt for a US soldier who went missing on Monday.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry said US forces were still searching houses and had created a security cordon.

US and Iraqi troops set up checkpoints around the area today and were restricting people from leaving the area, residents said.

Sunni leaders and U.S. officials say the Mehdi Army is behind sectarian killings and kidnappings that have pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said on Tuesday it had to be brought under control.

Television footage showed five bodies in a morgue and six people wounded, including one elderly woman, in hospital.

A resident told Reuters two members of the Mehdi Army were among the dead.

Angry relatives and the wounded blamed both US forces and Maliki's government.

''Where is Maliki? Where is his freedom?'' said one man lying on a stretcher in the hospital.

A security cordon around the central Karrada district, where troops have searched house-to-house since the US soldier disappeared on Monday night, had been lifted today but Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Stoder said the search continued.

''We are putting all our assets into finding the soldier,'' he said. ''We haven't done any air strikes (in the hunt for the soldier),'' he added, declining to say on which areas of the city the search was focused.

The search for the missing soldier revived memories of the kidnapping in June of two US soldiers near Yusufiya, an al Qaeda stronghold south of Baghdad, in an ambush. Their bodies were later found badly mutilated.

An American of Iraqi descent, the missing soldier was last seen on Monday afternoon in the Green Zone, in uniform. Stoder declined to say whether his superiors were aware of his plan to visit a relative. ''He was kidnapped outside the International Zone. Everything else is under investigation,'' he said.


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