BAGHDAD U.S. and Iraqi forces detained nearly 200 people during operations that targeted two prominently 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 on several religious sensitivities in this country where sectarian rivalries often are deadly.
In Basra, on Friday, Iraqi forces killed at least one student and wounded six other people when they opened fire on a group that appeared to be headed to prayer in a public area. Iraqi forces have banned public areas from being used for prayer in the aftermath of a security crackdown on Sadr's forces in Basra.
The symbolism is strong. Outdoor prayers were also banned during Saddam Hussein's rule, and one of the first major celebrations of Saddam's fall was a huge outdoor prayer service in Sadr City on the first Friday after Saddam's statue was toppled in Baghdad.
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."