CNN: Iraq plans to close its borders with Iran and Syria for 72 hours in an attempt to secure the capital, the Iraqi commander in charge of Baghdad’s security plan announced Tuesday. As details of the border closure became public, senior Bush administration officials said radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fled Iraq for Iran two to three weeks ago out of fear for his safety. BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — Iraq plans to close its borders with Iran and Syria for 72 hours in an attempt to secure the capital, the Iraqi commander in charge of Baghdad’s security plan announced Tuesday.
Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, speaking on behalf of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, spelled out the details of the security crackdown in a televised address Tuesday.
As details of the border closure became public, senior Bush administration officials said radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fled Iraq for Iran two to three weeks ago out of fear for his safety.
However, Iraqi sources have not confirmed this information and call it a rumor. Salah al Agaili, a spokesman for al-Sadr and a member of his parliament bloc, told CNN that al-Sadr is still in Iraq.
As recently as Thursday, al-Sadr’s office said he was in Najaf.
If he is in Iran, it is not his first trip there. Al-Sadr has made half a dozen official trips and an unknown number of personal visits to Iran in the last few years.
Senior administration sources said they believe al-Sadr fled in anticipation of the U.S. military’s troop buildup and a crackdown on militias, and because of fractures with extremist elements within his militia.
One official said that recent raids in “Little Baghdad” and Sadr City led to the arrest of top of al-Sadr’s top ministers, one from the Ministry of Health, the other from the Ministry of Interior. Al-Sadr feared he could be next, the official said.
Since President Bush announced his military surge, coalition forces have seen militia members “bailing out or going underground,” the official said.
Al-Sadr left Iraq by car and is still in Iran, the senior administration sources said.
It was not clear what effect Sadr’s absence — if he is in Iran — would have on his Mehdi Army.
The assertion by senior administration sources came amid other charges by the Bush administration that the Iranian government is supplying weapons to Shiite militant groups in Iraq, like al-Sadr’s.
On Tuesday, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace appeared to question a Tehran link. White House spokesman Tony Snow, however, said the general and the administration were on the same page.
Meanwhile, Wednesday, Iraqi authorities extended the curfew in Baghdad as part of the security clampdown, and Iraqi forces plan to suspend civilian licenses for weapons and ammunition.
The security plan covers 10 districts in Baghdad.
Some observers have predicted that followers of al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia — which has been blamed for a large part of the sectarian violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq — would be overlooked, because the al-Sadr movement has backed al-Maliki, who is also a Shiite.
Qanbar did not say when the borders would close, but a government official said it was expected within two days, The Associated Press reported.
During the closures, Iraqi officials will install improved security equipment at checkpoints, including upgraded bomb detection devices, an Iraqi official told CNN.
Helicopter likely shot down
The U.S. Marine Corps believes an American helicopter that crashed in Iraq last week was most likely shot down by insurgents, a senior officer told CNN Tuesday.
The Marines had said that the CH-46 helicopter went down because of mechanical failure, but they changed their minds after reviewing a “very convincing” video posted on the Web by insurgents, the Marine officer said.
The 2 minute, 31 second video shows the twin-rotor helicopter being struck by a projectile. Smoke bursts from the helicopter, which then speeds out of control toward land. Eventually the image of the craft morphs into a smoke-filled streak and crashes.
The video was released by the Islamic State in Iraq, an umbrella militant group that includes al Qaeda in Iraq, and produced by Al Furqan Media, an insurgent operation.
The Marines are relying on the insurgent video because the wreckage of helicopter was damaged by a fire on the ground. Marines who arrived shortly after the crash destroyed the rest of the chopper so insurgents would not be able to get their hands on it. At the time, the Marines believed mechanical failure was the cause.
All seven people on board were killed in the February 7 crash. The helicopter was carrying medical supplies.
Six helicopters — four military and two operated by civilian contractors — have been involved in crashes in Iraq in the past three weeks. Five of six were the result of enemy fire, the U.S. military has concluded.
Suicide bomb kills 16
A suicide bomber detonated a powerful truck bomb outside a Ministry of Trade food warehouse in northwestern Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 16 people and wounding 40 others, an Interior Ministry official said.
The attack took place around 10 a.m. (2 a.m. ET) in the capital’s Iskan district, a predominantly Shiite area of town.
Police also found a booby-trapped ambulance about 500 yards away, but they were able to defuse all of the explosives, the AP reported.
Another car bomb exploded outside a bakery in southeastern Baghdad hours later. Four people were killed and several others were wounded, a Baghdad police official said.
Tuesday’s violence came a day after five explosions ripped through central Baghdad, killing at least 90 people and wounding more than 190 others.
CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.