BAGHDAD, Oct 26: Iraq's most notorious death squad leader escaped a major US-led raid on a Shi'ite Muslim militia stronghold in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said today.
In an interview with Reuters, Maliki yesterday said ground and air assault on the sprawling Sadr City slum targeted Abu Deraa, a feared warlord held responsible for a rash of brutal sectarian killings and kidnappings of Iraqi Sunnis.
The operation, carried out by Iraqi special forces with US advisers and air support, killed 10 people, according to a US military statement.
Maliki said the raid had his backing but argued that it was conducted in a heavy handed way that could wreck a political deal he had worked on with Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical anti-American cleric who controls the Mehdi Army Shi'ite militia.
''I said we agree on arresting wanted criminals and we do not care whether they are Sunnis or Shi'ites, but that was not an arrest operation,'' said Maliki, who is himself a Shi'ite.
''Do you send in planes to arrest one person?'' he asked.
Maliki had appeared to disavow the raid at a news conference yesterday, saying he had not been consulted, but he told Reuters his problem was with an operation in the same area which was part of the hunt for a kidnapped American soldier.
''We knew about the first part but they did not tell us about the second part,'' Maliki said.
Deraa, sometimes dubbed ''The Shi'ite Zarqawi'' after slain al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, is believed to be a renegade Mehdi Army member who is at odds with Sadr. He was the target of a similar raid in the same area on July 7.
''They did not arrest him in either operation,'' Maliki said. A US military statement late on yesterday said the operations in Baghdad's Sadr City slum had killed 10 ''enemy fighters'' and led to 13 arrests. Three of the suspects were seized at a mosque in connection with Monday's abduction of the US soldier, the statement said.
The US military had earlier referred only to an operation ''to capture a top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death squad activity''.
MEHDI ARMY OR NOT? Masked gunmen grabbed the American serviceman at the home of relatives he went to visit in Baghdad after leaving the fortified Green Zone, according to US military officials who have identified him as a linguist of Iraqi descent.
Maliki said the man's brother was snatched with him but later let go. ''The brother who was released said he been abducted by the Mehdi Army but we don't know what Mehdi Army means anymore,'' Maliki said.
''We asked the Sadr movement to look for him and they swear they know nothing about him,'' Maliki said. Sunni insurgents and loyalists of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sometimes also posed as Mehdi Army fighters in the same black garb, he said.
US military spokesmen were not immediately available to comment on Maliki's remarks.
They followed tensions between President George W Bush and Maliki yesterday over political and security measures to stem Iraq's spiralling violence and the assault on Sadr City.
''You should not harm people in the way you go to arrest people, spreading horror and at the risk of sabotaging political actions we have worked on,'' Maliki said.
The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, singled out the Mehdi Army on Tuesday as a militia that needed to be brought under control.
Maliki said he had convinced Sadr to issue a statement that banned the Mehdi Army from fighting Iraqi government and US-led forces and outlawed kidnappings and killings.
''We support such a position because it will reflect positively on the security situation and we have started talking to them about how to disarm militias,'' he said.