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Calm amid crackdown in Amarah

With Sadr pledging to cooperate, Iraqi forces meet little resistance as they arrest the mayor and others in the city.

June 20, 2008|Haydar al-Alak and Ned Parker | Special to The Times

AMARAH, IRAQ — Iraqi security forces Thursday arrested the mayor of Amarah and a provincial council member, both supporters of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's religious movement, on the first day of a military crackdown.

They met little resistance as senior aides to Sadr said his Mahdi Army militia had pledged to cooperate with the operation to avoid putting civilians in the southern city at risk.

A similar government crackdown in March that began in the southern port city of Basra ignited nearly seven weeks of fighting between the Iraqi military and the Mahdi Army, most of it in Baghdad. Hundreds died in the violence, which formally ended May 10 with an agreement for Iraqi security forces to police the Sadr City district, the cleric's main stronghold in the capital.

Security officials and Sadr supporters said Thursday's operation in Amarah resulted in the arrests of Mayor Rafia Abdul-Jabbar, who also serves as deputy governor of Maysan province, and provincial council member Ali Hassan. Officials did not say why the two were arrested.

At least 700 policemen suspected of criminal activities also were detained and under investigation, said Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf. More arrests were expected, Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari said.

Khalaf said he expected the campaign to move outside Amarah, capital of Maysan, even into the region's marshes, long a hide-out for criminals and smugglers.

The crackdown was announced over the weekend and Iraqi security forces had set a Wednesday deadline for residents to hand in illegal weapons and for wanted individuals to turn themselves in. Amnesty had been offered to those who had not committed serious crimes.

Members of the Sadr movement traveled to Amarah to monitor the sweep, as all sides sought to avoid a repeat of the Basra operation.

"Muqtada Sadr doesn't want to have any incidents that would lead to casualties among civilians, so he is calling for self-restraint and calming down," said Haidar Turfi, a senior Sadr official in the shrine city of Najaf.

The streets of Amarah were mostly quiet as people went about their business. U.S. warplanes flew overhead. Military vehicles drove down the main boulevard, Dijilah Street, playing patriotic songs. People expressed relief that their city was not riven by fighting.

"I thought that the city situation would get worse. . . . However, life is normal," said Lateef Abdullah, a 38-year-old shopkeeper. Like many, he expressed relief that armed groups had disappeared and was eager for the government forces to assert control.

The March offensive in Basra has been credited with stabilizing the port city, which had been racked by fighting among Shiite militias and criminal gangs. But Sadr supporters alleged that the campaign was intended by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his main government partner, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, to sabotage the Sadr movement before provincial elections this fall.

Many fighters were thought to have fled Basra for Amarah because Maysan province is governed by Sadr's followers. Turfi and others alleged Maliki's government was deliberately targeting them.

"We know that this plan is aimed against all those who are from the Sadr movement, or those who support it are targeted by the occupation," he said.

Sadr officials are mindful of the damage that the earlier fighting had done to their image among followers.

"The events that happened in Basra and Sadr City in Baghdad would never happen again because we are with the law, with justice. We refuse any internal fight; we don't want any more widows," said Dr. Adil Shawi, a member of parliament with Sadr's bloc.

Sadr, whose following is based largely on the legacy of his father, a grand ayatollah who challenged Saddam Hussein and was assassinated in 1999, has taken intermittent steps since 2006 to rein in his Mahdi Army militia. That year, he sanctioned the banishment of members who had committed abuses against fellow Shiites and Sunnis.

In August last year, Sadr announced a six-month freeze on his militia's activities after clashes with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council's militia at a shrine in Karbala. The truce was renewed in February but unraveled with the Basra offensive.

Sadr has since ordered his supporters to cooperate with the government and issued a statement last week saying that only a select group of his supporters would carry arms.

Analysts and diplomats have been puzzled by Sadr's recent decisions.

"The fact is, nobody clearly understands," said Iraq expert Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cordesman said it was difficult to know what role Iran, influential with most Iraqi Shiite religious parties, has played in the current calm in Amarah.

Maysan province borders Iran, and U.S. military officials suspect that it is a smuggling route for weapons.

Also Thursday, Iraq Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said the country hoped to sign contracts with Western oil companies by the end of the month to help rehabilitate oil fields. They would be the first contracts signed by the Iraqi government with Western oil firms since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Jihad said Exxon Mobil Corp., Shell Oil Co. and the French firm Total were among the companies negotiating with Iraq to offer technical support for oil fields in the north and south.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

Times staff writer Parker reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Alak from Amarah. Times staff writers Saif Hameed and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad, special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.

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