Shiite militia seizes control of southern Iraq's Amarah

Discussion in 'Politics' started by ZZZzzzzzzz, Oct 20, 2006.

  1. Shiite militia seizes control of southern Iraq's Amarah

    Baghdad, Oct. 20(AP): The Shiite militia run by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized control of the southern Iraqi city of Amarah on Friday in one of the boldest acts of defiance yet by the country's powerful, unofficial armies, witnesses and police said.

    Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched an emergency security delegation that included the Minister of State for Security Affairs and top officials from the Interior and Defense ministries, said Yassin Majid, the Prime Minister's media adviser told the Associated Press. Al-Sadr representatives had rushed Amarah from the holy city of Najaf to the north.

    The Mahdi Army fighters stormed three main police stations Friday morning, planting explosives that flattened the buildings, residents said.

    Shiite militia violence, mainly against the country's Sunni minority, has ravaged Iraq since February when a Shiite holy place in Samara was blown up. The violence has been on the increase, but this is the first recent fighting that has pitted Shiites against one another on such a scale.

    Britain returned the city to Iraqi military control in August, and a British officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make press statements, said Iraqi army and police forces were massing to retake the city of 750,000.

    About 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were patrolling city streets in commandeered police vehicles, eyewitnesses said. Other fighters had set up roadblocks on routes into the city and sound trucks circulated telling residents to stay indoors.

    At least 15 people, including five militiamen, one policeman and two bystanders, have been killed in clashes since Friday, Dr. Zamil Shia, director of Amarah's department of health, said by telephone from the city, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of Baghdad.

    The fighting also wounded at least 59 people _ 31 militiamen, six policemen and 22 civilians, including 3 children _ according to Riyadh Saed, the duty physician at the city's main hospital.

    The events in Amarah highlight the threat of wider violence between rival Shiite factions, who have entrenched themselves among the majority Shiite population and are blamed for killings of rival Sunnis.

    Fighting broke out on Thursday after Qassim al-Tamimi, the provincial head of police intelligence and a leading member of the rival Shiite Badr Brigade militia, was killed by a roadside bomb. In retaliation, his family kidnapped the teenage brother of the Mahdi Army commander in Amarah, Sheik Fadel al-Bahadli, to demand the hand-over of al-Tamimi's killers.

    Amarah, a major population center in the resource-rich yet impoverished south, is a traditional center of Shiite defiance to successive Iraqi regimes. It's famed marshlands were drained by former dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1990s in reprisal for the city's role in the Shiite uprising that blazed through the region after the 1991 Gulf War.

    The city lies along the Tigris river just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the border with Iran, whose Shiite-controlled government is accused of backing Iraqi militia groups suspected of involvement in sectarian killings now wracking the country.

    The showdown between the Mahdi and Badr militias has the potential to develop into an all-out conflict between the heavily armed groups and their political sponsors, both with large blocs in parliament and backers of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling coalition. It also could shatter the unity of Iraq's majority Shiites at a time when an enduring Sunni insurgency shows no signs of abating.

    Badr and the Mahdi Army have struggled for years for control in the south, al-Sadr's political bloc, the so-called ``Sadrists'', and the Badr's backers, the SCIRI, both being members of al-Maliki's ruling coalition.

    The fighting comes a day after the chief military spokesman in Iraq said a massive two-month-old security operation in Baghdad had failed to meet targets while the monthly death toll for American troops in October had climbed to 74, putting October on course to be the deadliest for U.S. forces in nearly two years.

    ``The violence is indeed disheartening,'' Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad.

    Sunni insurgents battling U.S. forces to the north made a further show of force on Friday, with masked gunmen linked to the main Sunni insurgent group, the Mujahedeen Shura Council staging a military style parade through the cities of Haqlaniyah and Haditha in the western province of Anbar.

    The gunmen urged residents to back an announcement by the group on Sunday that it has established an Islamic state made up of six provinces, including Baghdad.

    That followed a similar demonstration Thursday by masked gunmen in Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold in Anbar, where U.S. forces have taken heavy losses against the insurgents.

    The province's police chief was assassinated Thursday by gunmen who burst into his home in Ramadi.

    Elsewhere, mortar attacks killed 10 people in the Iraqi city of Balad, where sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites had already killed 95 people.

    Gunmen shot and killed four men trapping hawks in the Balad Roz district, 55 miles (89 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, said a police officer speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. The trapping of hawks for sale to trainers and hunters is common in Iraqi in the autumn months.

    In Khalis, 20 Kilometers (13 miles) east of Baqouba, a police patrol clashed early Friday with gunmen, killing three onlookers and wounding three others, he added.

    Shiite backers of Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group rallied in the sprawling Baghdad slum of Sadr city to mark a day of opposition to the state of Israel. Among the 600 participants were those carrying banners reading, ``Israel is a cancer in the Arab nation's body.'' The slum is a stronghold of the Mahdi army militia.

    Despite that show of support, a Baghdad residential complex housing Palestinians was attacked with mortars Thursday night, killing 4 men and injuring 11 other people, police Capt. Mohammed Abdul Ghani said.