US captures alleged Shiite militia leader, 1 other suspect in latest raids south of Baghdad

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By LAUREN FRAYER

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) -- U.S. soldiers captured a suspected Shiite militia commander and one other suspect Monday, the latest of several days of raids in Shiite holy cities south of Baghdad.

The arrests came a day after car bombs and gunmen struck new U.S. allies, police and civilians in northern Iraq, killing as many as 53 people in a spasm of violence that coincided with a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Baghdad.

The main suspect detained Monday is believed to be in charge of criminal operations for "special groups" in the Iraqi provinces of Wasit, Babil and Najaf, the U.S. military said in a statement. He was allegedly involved in coordinating weapons shipments and planning attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, it said. It did not characterize the second suspect.

But Iraqi police said the men were bodyguards for a Sadrist lawmaker, Ahmed al-Masaoudi. He was not immediately available to comment on the arrests, which took place in Hillah, about 60 miles south of the capital.

"Special groups" is language the military uses to describe Shiite Muslim militias allegedly backed by Iran. The U.S. says the groups have broken ranks with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. The radical cleric in August called a six-month cease-fire, which is due to expire later this month.

The U.S. has been careful not to accuse al-Sadr himself of any role in ongoing attacks, and instead has blamed rogue militiamen of violating his cease-fire order. Nevertheless, U.S. and Iraqi officials have been cracking down on al-Sadr's followers, especially in militia strongholds south of the capital.

A cache of explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, was seized in that Shiite region south of Baghdad over the weekend, the U.S. military said Monday. Working on an informant's tip, U.S. soldiers discovered 13 EFPs and 37 blocks of C-4 explosive, along with mortar tubes and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, the military said.

EFPs are a sophisticated type of roadside bomb that fires a molten slug capable of piercing even the most heavily armored military vehicles. They have been responsible for hundreds of American troop deaths in Iraq.

Washington accuses Iran of manufacturing and funneling the weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq. The cache seized Friday in Jurf Nada, southeast of Baghdad, was further evidence of the weapons continued use deep inside Iraqi Shiite territory. Tehran denies supplying any EFPs to militants.

The U.S. sweeps south of Baghdad were likely to raise tension with al-Sadr, whose cease-fire has been credited with helping dramatically reduce sectarian attacks in the capital. American military officials have said they hope al-Sadr will extend the pledge, which expires later this month.

Last week, the cleric's office in Najaf issued a statement warning Mahdi Army fighters to abide by his cease-fire, after U.S. and Iraqi troops raided what is perhaps al-Sadr's most sensitive target -- Sadr City -- Baghdad's main Shiite district and a Mahdi Army stronghold. In the statement, he said he would expel militiamen from his group if they did not abide by his pledge.

But al-Sadr himself has threatened not to extend the cease-fire unless the Iraqi government purges rival Shiite militiamen he alleges have infiltrated the security forces and are targeting his followers.