BAGHDAD — As hundreds of masked, black-clad men descended on a normally quiet southern city Friday and gunfire echoed outside, Ahmed and Roqayah Jasim locked the doors of their modest home. They prayed for themselves and their three young children.
Then they heard a knock on the door. Ahmed, a 33-year-old teacher, reluctantly opened it. A fighter no older than 20 stood holding a sniper rifle.
"He didn't threaten me," Ahmed said later, still stunned. "He just asked me, like a favor, 'Can I use your roof to shoot from?' And I said, 'No you can't. I have a family.' He seemed to understand, and so he left."
By Friday evening, two days of fighting in the southern city of Amarah between police and the Al Mahdi army militia, which is loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, had eased. The national government rushed soldiers and a high-level security delegation to the city, led by national security minister Sherwan Waili. Sadr also sent representatives. Government officials and tribal elders met into the evening, trying to negotiate a solution to the conflict.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington that he believed Iraqi security forces had regained control of the area.
But the two-day offensive by the Al Mahdi army highlighted how difficult it has become for the central government and its security forces to rein in Shiite Muslim militias, both in the capital and in the south.
The militias fired mortar rounds at police stations where officers had barricaded themselves. When police ran out of ammunition and fled, Al Mahdi militiamen blew up at least two of the stations. During 48 hours of ferocious street battles in the oil-rich city of 300,000, 22 people were killed and almost 100 were injured.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki visited Sadr this week in the holy city of Najaf to ask for his support in clamping down on bands of militiamen who kill with impunity. But Maliki also depends for political support on Sadr, who controls 30 seats in the Council or Representatives, or parliament. And despite Sadr's intermittent calls for calm, violence has continued unabated.
Amarah residents said they were worried.
"Today we have those delegations, but what about tomorrow?" asked Khalil Rasheed, a 55-year-old shopkeeper, who said his city was beset by armed thugs bent on enforcing religious rule. "The situation is more dangerous than people imagine."
"I'm worried, seeing those people taking control," said Haitham Sadek, Ahmed Jasim's colleague. "The future will be horrible if these people are going to control" Amarah, he said.
Shiite militiamen have whipped those caught drinking alcohol and killed women accused of adultery, Sadek said. He said he recently saw the funeral of a nurse who was killed after she was accused of adultery.
British troops abruptly pulled out of a base in the city in late August, to hand power to Iraqi security forces and free up the soldiers to patrol the Iranian border. Their camp was promptly pillaged and burned by looters, some of them carrying pictures of Sadr.
At the time, Sadr's militia broadcast messages over loudspeakers throughout Amarah proclaiming victory.
"This is the first Iraqi city that has kicked out the occupier," one announcement said. "We have to celebrate this occasion."
Handing over control to the Iraqi army and police is key to the strategy of U.S.-led military forces, but the Iraqis often have proved inadequate, especially when facing Shiite militias.
During a similar battle between Iraqi forces and Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Diwaniya in late August, American troops eventually had to come to the aid of beleaguered Iraqi soldiers.
Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington that there would be setbacks when U.S. and British forces handed control to Iraqi forces, and that the U.S.-led coalition would step in and try to restore order.
"It is never going to be a straight, smooth, steady path," Rumsfeld said at a news conference. "The biggest mistake would be to not pass things over to the Iraqis, create a dependency on their part instead of developing strength and capacity and competence."
Police officers in Amarah, nearly 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, stood their ground in some cases, defending stations until their ammunition ran out. But in other cases, they simply ran when faced with the heavily armed attackers, witnesses said.
Assailants overran three police stations in the city, blowing up at least two of them. Unknown gunmen burned down the local Sadr office in apparent retaliation, witnesses said.
The fighting began Thursday afternoon. Carrying AK-47s, the black-clad militiamen fanned out across the city. The gunmen stopped one police patrol, telling officers to get out of the car. Watching the officers flee, leaving guns and equipment behind, one doctor said he was sickened by how powerless he felt.
Men using loudspeakers on cars and at mosques advised residents to stay inside.
Like others, Jasim became a prisoner in his house.