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Iraq Transition

Iraqi terror leader reported wounded

Story Highlights

• Police reportedly kill al-Masri's top deputy
• Nearly 30 checkpoints manned around Basra, near Iran border
• For first time, an Iraqi official says radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is in Iran
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The leader of al Qaeda in Iraq has been wounded and his top aide killed in a clash with police, an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman told CNN Thursday.

Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf said Iraqi police got into a firefight with insurgents on the road between Falluja, west of Baghdad, and Samarra, north of Baghdad, and wounded Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

Abu Abdullah al-Majamiai, al-Masri's top aide, was killed, he said. (Watch how an Iraqi minister described the firefight Video)

The group was trying to enter the town of Balad, Khalaf said.

Khalaf said Iraqi police have the body of al-Majamiai.

CNN could not independently confirm the report and CNN's Michael Ware in Baghdad said Iraqi officials would not say whether al-Masri was in custody.

The U.S. military -- who wrongly reported last October that al-Masri had been killed -- referred reporters to the Iraqi government.

Al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, is an Egyptian who took over the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq in June after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Iraqi Interior Minister Muwaffak al-Rubaie estimated in October 2006 that al-Masri had been involved in making more than 2,000 car bombs that killed more than 6,000 Iraqis in the past two years.

Security crackdowns in Basra, Baghdad

Meanwhile, U.S., British and Iraqi forces on Thursday kicked off new security crackdowns in Basra and Baghdad, a day after the war-torn nation shut down seven crossings along its borders with Iran and Syria.

Iraq closed the border crossings -- five along its eastern border with Iran and two on its western border with Syria -- because U.S. and Iraqi forces said they were concerned about foreign fighters infiltrating the countries.

The border shutdown is intended to keep Shiites in Iran and pro-al Qaeda elements in Syria from entering the country, officials said.

On Thursday, British and Iraqi troops set up a perimeter around the southeastern port city of Basra, near the Iranian border, in a show of force.

The operation "involves the reinforcing and closure of the border crossing points between Iran and Iraq," the British Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

The operation, which will be conducted by 2,000 Iraqi security personnel and 1,200 British troops, will last 72 hours, according to the ministry.

The troops have set up 20 checkpoints and beefed up security at eight existing checkpoints, said Brig. Gen. Mohammed Hammadi al-Mousawi, the head of the security committee in Basra.

Al-Mousawi would not say why the troops were surrounding Basra, a largely Shiite city, but the move comes as U.S. and Iraqi forces bolster their presence in Baghdad and Anbar province, the Sunni-dominated region west of the capital.

In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces have been staging raids against militias for weeks, but a new phase of the security push was announced early Thursday in a U.S. military statement.

Dubbed Operation Law and Order, the new phase involves raids on extremist elements in the country.

"Intelligence-focused searches accompanied by clearing operations were conducted by coalition and Iraqi security forces in multiple locations across Baghdad today," said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Scott R. Bleichwehl.

On Wednesday, President Bush praised the new security plan for Baghdad.

"The operation to secure Baghdad is going to take time and there will be violence," Bush said.

Bush said the violence is "disturbing to the Iraqi people, but it reminds me of how important it is to help them succeed. If you think the violence is bad now, imagine what it would look like if we don't help them secure the city, the capital city of Baghdad."

Where is radical Shiite cleric?

Thursday's security initiatives come as speculation continues over the whereabouts of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (Watch why al-Sadr's whereabouts are a mystery Video)

Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and a member of parliament, joined the White House and U.S. military Thursday in saying that al-Sadr had left for Iran. But while the Bush administration asserts the radical cleric has been there for two weeks, al-Askari said al-Sadr left for the Islamic republic a few days ago.

Al-Askari, the first Iraqi official to confirm the U.S. report on al-Sadr, provided no further details. The al-Sadr movement has backed the prime minister, who is also a Shiite.

Senior Bush administration sources have said al-Sadr fled to Iran out of fear for his safety, but an al-Sadr aide said Wednesday that the cleric was still in the holy city of Najaf, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of Baghdad.

On Thursday, two members of the Iraqi parliament's Sadrist bloc -- Saleh al-Ageili and Falah Hassan Shnashel -- again denied that al-Sadr was in Iran.

A Wednesday report from the Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran's state-run news outlet, said an "informed source" rejected foreign media reports that al-Sadr was in Iran. The source called the assertion baseless, the agency reported.

Senior White House sources said al-Sadr fled because of infighting in his militia, the Mehdi Army, and out of fear that he might be apprehended in new security crackdowns.

The U.S. military on Thursday reported that special Iraqi army forces raided a "rogue" cell of the Mehdi Army, killing one hostile fighter and arresting others.

The raid involved three firefights at a building in Mashru, south of Baghdad, the military said. Iraqi forces detained several hostile fighters after two gunbattles, then incurred small-arms fire from inside the building. Iraqi forces returned fire, killing one insurgent, the military said.

Raids over the last month have netted two high-profile al-Sadr associates, Deputy Health Minister Hakem Abbas al-Zamili and Abdul Hadi Darraji, the head of the cleric's media office. Iraqi soldiers also killed a Mehdi Army official during a raid in Diyala province.

Other developments

• Coalition forces rescued an Iraqi hostage near Baghdad during raids targeting al Qaeda in Iraq and a network of insurgent bombers, the U.S. military said Thursday. Troops detained four men hiding near the building where the hostage was found, and one of the men had the hostage's cell phone, the military said. After the Wednesday raid on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, the hostage told troops that he had been tied up with a hood over his head for three days. He was taken to a medical facility for examination.

Five children, ranging in age from 4 to 8, were killed Thursday when a roadside bomb exploded while they played with the device left in a park near Tikrit, north of Baghdad, police said.

A woman and two men were killed Thursday when a roadside bomb detonated near their car in Samarra, northwest of Baghdad, police said.

• Insurgents launched four 82-mm mortar rounds into the village of Mzerat, north of Baghdad, killing two residents and wounding eight others, police said.

• A car bomb exploded Thursday in an outdoor market in eastern Baghdad's Sadr City, killing at least three people and wounding 25 others, police said. Earlier Thursday, two car bombs simultaneously detonated in southern Baghdad, killing four people and wounding 20 more, police said. One of the blasts came near a highway, while the second bomb exploded near a security checkpoint. Also, a bomb in a parked car exploded in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad, wounding two Iraqi soldiers, police said.

• A U.S. Marine assigned to Multi-National Force-West was killed during combat Wednesday in Anbar province, the U.S. military said Thursday. The number of U.S. military personnel killed in the war stands at 3,123. Seven Department of Defense civilians also have died.

CNN's Michael Ware, Jomana Karadsheh, Barbara Starr and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Abu Ayyub al-Masri, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, reportedly was wounded in a firefight.

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