AMARA, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces launched a crackdown on Shi’ite militias in the southern city of Amara on Thursday, the latest drive in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s campaign to restore order to Iraq.
“The operation started this morning,” Major-General Tareq Abdul Wahab, the commander of the offensive, told Reuters. “We have already arrested some wanted men. We can’t disclose who, but the operation is moving smoothly.”
Amara, home to 250,000 people, is a stronghold of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Witnesses saw police raiding houses of suspected militants, backed by U.S. troops in armored vehicles blocking roads.
Two senior police sources and a source from the governorship of Maysan province told Reuters that amongst those arrested were the city’s mayor, Rafea Abdul-Jabbar, and a member of the municipal council.
Security forces appeared to meet no resistance and residents said they had not yet heard a single gunshot. Sadr has ordered his fighters not to resist.
Iraqi troops and police have been tightening their grip on Amara for days. They have urged militias to hand over medium and heavy weapons, such as rockets and mortars.
Calling the operation the “Omen of Peace,” a statement from Maliki’s cabinet said it will “impose law in the province and confront the outlaws.” It added that a big cache of weapons had been discovered in the city in the past few days.
Local police spokesman Colonel Mehdi al-Asadi said a curfew had been imposed on Maysan province until further notice.
Iraqi police and troops patrolled the streets of Amara and U.S. helicopters hovered overhead. Many residents stayed home and some shops were closed. Traffic jams built up on Amara’s outskirts as police searched vehicles entering the city.
SADR’S TWIN STRATEGY
Maliki has previously sent the Iraqi army, with U.S. support, into Mehdi Army bastions in Baghdad and the southern oil city of Basra, and launched a campaign against al Qaeda Sunni Arab insurgents in the northern city of Mosul.
Maliki had given “outlaws” and “criminals” in Amara until Wednesday to surrender their heavy weapons before the crackdown. A security source has said militants were instead dumping them in rivers, streets or farms.
Analysts say Sadr’s conciliatory stance shows he is pursuing a twin strategy — trying to regain control of his unruly militia whilst avoiding confrontation with the government.
The anti-American cleric has at times seemed on the verge of declaring war on security forces, but last Friday urged his men not to fight them, saying only a select group of the Mehdi Army would confront U.S. — not Iraqi — forces.
That contrasts sharply with the earlier Baghdad and Basra operations, when government forces met fierce resistance from Mehdi Army fighters. Hundreds were killed in Basra and other southern towns. Fighting raged in Baghdad for nearly two months.
But government control has been largely restored since Sadr and the ruling Shi’ite alliance agreed a truce in both cities.
Analysts say Sadr, knowing he would lose an all-out military confrontation with a government backed by immense U.S. firepower, is seeking alternatives to stay on the scene.
He is also trying to resist intense pressure from some of his own commanders to respond forcefully to government crackdowns, who see them as a provocation and an attempt to marginalize their movement before Oct 1. provincial elections.
By backing out of a fight, Sadr may be seeking to concentrate instead on backing candidates at the ballot box.
Maliki has been criticized in the past for lacking resolve to stabilize Iraq — especially in cracking down on fellow Shi’ites. But he has gained a measure of respect at home and abroad for the offensives, which have helped reduce violence to the lowest level in more than four years.
The campaigns also underscore the government’s desire to take more control of security from 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Baghdad is negotiating a security pact with Washington to lay the legal foundation for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq beyond a U.N. mandate that expires at the end of this year. The talks are controversial in both Iraq and the United States.
In a sign recent security gains are fragile, a truck bomb killed 63 people in Baghdad on Tuesday. The U.S. military blamed Shi’ite militants for the attack.