Iraq plugs its frontiers

BAGHDAD - Iraq closed its borders with Iran and Syria as US and Iraqi troops tightened their grip on Baghdad yesterday, setting up checkpoints at which even official convoys were stopped and searched for weapons.

BAGHDAD - Iraq closed its borders with Iran and Syria as US and Iraqi troops tightened their grip on Baghdad yesterday, setting up checkpoints at which even official convoys were stopped and searched for weapons.

An Iraq Interior Ministry official said the closure of Iraq's four border crossings with Iran and two with Syria took effect on Wednesday.

US officials and others have long accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its long, porous border into Iraq. At the weekend, the Iraqis and the US presented evidence to substantiate reports that Iranian-manufactured weapons were being smuggled into Iraq.

Tehran and Damascus deny involvement in Iraq's chaos.

Iraq said it would shut the borders for 72 hours.

The US military said on Wednesday that the move was designed to choke off the flow of weapons and foreign fighters into the country.

The border closures came as thousands of US and Iraqi troops stepped up an offensive in Baghdad, the centre of sectarian violence between minority Sunni and majority Shiite Muslims that has pitched the country towards all-out civil war.

Military analysts say many militiamen were likely to lie low or flee Baghdad until the operation was over.

In the past week, fewer members of the Mehdi Army militia of radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr have been seen on the streets of their stronghold, the sprawling Sadr City slum in east Baghdad.

Several Mehdi Army commanders are also reported to have left the capital.

The US has identified the militia as the greatest threat to peace in Iraq and hundreds of Mehdi Army members have been arrested.

The US military and Iraqi government officials have said Sadr left Iraq for Iran ahead of the crackdown.

The chief US military spokesman in Iraq, Major-General William Caldwell, said border checkpoints would be reorganised to establish "transfer points" at which vehicles could be searched. - Reuters

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