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Shi'ite militia in show of strength

Sadr fighters briefly take over city in Iraq

Masked gunmen took over the southern Iraqi town of Amarah yesterday after storming three main police stations. Local Shi’ite police forced a withdrawal in the afternoon.
Masked gunmen took over the southern Iraqi town of Amarah yesterday after storming three main police stations. Local Shi’ite police forced a withdrawal in the afternoon. (AP Photo/ AP Television)

BAGHDAD -- Members of the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shi'ite militia headed by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, briefly took over the southern Iraqi city of Amarah and battled with the local Shi'ite police before withdrawing yesterday. The siege illustrated deepening rifts within Iraq's largest sect and the growing turmoil in the south.

As many as 25 people, including 10 police officers, were killed in street fighting and mortar attacks that raged in Amarah, a predominantly Shi'ite city about 190 miles southeast of Baghdad, from midday Thursday until about 2 p.m. yesterday.

Southern Iraq, a Shi'ite stronghold, has generally been spared the intense bloodletting that terrorist attacks and sectarian violence have brought to much of the rest of the country. But the Mahdi Army's takeover of Amarah, even if only temporary, is another sign that the south is becoming more restive as the rest of the country slips toward open civil war.

It also shows the growing tension among Shi'ite leaders as the United States pushes the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to rein in militias, particularly Sadr's.

The Amarah clash involved two forces sponsored by fueding Shi'ite leaders who control large blocs in parliament that are important to the survival of Maliki's four -month-old coalition government.

The Mahdi Army has openly fought US forces and has been accused of ruthlessly attacking Sunni Arabs and forcing them from their homes and towns. The fierce struggle between Shi'ite factions at the local level mirrors that at the national level, where the same groups are flexing their political and military muscles in a battle for control

Yesterday, the Mahdi militia attacked the headquarters and two stations of the Amarah police force, which is reportedly aligned with the Badr Brigades, an arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shi'ite religious party.

Each side blamed the other in a cycle of retaliatory clashes with tribal overtones.

Residents reached by telephone said the conflict began when a police intelligence chief with the Supreme Council was assassinated, and police responded by arresting the brother of a local Mahdi Army chief.

Negotiations to release him broke down, they said, and at about 1 p.m. Thursday members of the Mahdi Army attacked three police facilities with mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The militia imposed a curfew and patrolled the streets with loudspeakers, ordering residents to stay inside.

The takeover ended "when Moqtada al-Sadr told them to stop," said Major Charlie Burbridge, a British military spokesman. "The situation now is calm but tense."

Burbridge said about 200 to 300 gunmen were involved in the attacks. He said the local police chief said that 10 of his men were killed and that police killed 15 members of the militia and wounded 90.

Burbridge said police officers were back in their stations and in control of the streets. He said 220 Iraqi Army troops soldiers were in the town supporting them, and that 700 more Iraqi soldiers and 500 British troops were on standby to go if requested.

British troops withdrew from Amarah, the capital of Maysan province, two months ago after their camp came under repeated mortar fire from Shi'ite militiamen identified by local residents as members of the Mahdi Army.

Maliki, who heads a government led by Shi'ite religious parties and was backed by Sadr, sent a ministerial team led by Sherwan al-Wailli, minister of state for national security, to the province to help settle the conflict.

"This was a very serious incident, but the silver lining is that Iraqi security forces were able to deal with it without the need of multinational forces to intervene," Burbridge said. "The Iraqi police and army resolved the situation, and it was conducted through negotiations instead of armed violence."

In Baghdad, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Brigadier Abdul Karim Khalaf Kinany, said the clashes were not driven by intra-Shi'ite conflict, but by tribal disputes.

"The clashes in Amarah were not between the police and the Mahdi Army," he said. "Police had in fact interfered to settle a tribal dispute between the tribe of the police officer, the head of the intelligence division . . . and the tribesmen of the suspects who were arrested by the police on suspicion of carrying out the assassination."

Burbridge described the gunmen as "a rogue element of one militia" who gave up the fight yesterday after "their leadership told them to come back into line, and the violence stopped."

Amarah, which has 300,000 people, is 30 miles from the Iran border , where the Shi'ite-led regime is said to be helping to finance and train both rival militias.

President Bush conceded yesterday that "right now it's tough" for American forces in Iraq, but the White House said he would not change US strategy in the face of preelection polls that indicate that voters are upset.

Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, police reported the deaths of 34 people, including 10 killed in mortar attacks overnight in Balad, an hour north of the capital, and a family of nine Shi'ites shot to death when gunmen burst into their home in Aziziyah, 35 miles southeast of Baghdad. A US soldier was killed when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb southwest of the capital.

Until recently, Baghdad had been the focus of sectarian and Sunni insurgent killers, prompting the United States to launch a drive in August to rid the capital of the gunmen and torturers.

But two months into the operation, the US combat death toll in October alone stood at 75 -- likely to be the highest for any month in nearly two years.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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