Iraq, U.S. Launch Crackdown

An Iraqi soldier stands guard at sunset on the first day of an operation targeting Shiite militias in Amarah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
An Iraqi soldier stands guard at sunset on the first day of an operation targeting Shiite militias in Amarah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad. (By Hadi Mizban -- Associated Press)
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By Ernesto Londoño and Aahad Ali
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 20, 2008

BAGHDAD, June 19 -- Iraqi and U.S. troops launched a military operation Thursday in the city of Amarah, a Shiite militia stronghold on the Iranian border, meeting virtually no resistance.

In a move that angered followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraqi troops detained the vice governor of Maysan province, who also serves as the mayor of Amarah, the provincial capital. Sadrist leaders in Maysan have vowed to cooperate with Iraqi troops but have suggested that the government is trying to expand its presence in Sadr strongholds to weaken the movement politically before provincial elections scheduled for the fall.

The operation, dubbed Promise of Peace, is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's fourth major push this year against fighters and banned weapons in Iraqi cities that have been largely lawless for years. Earlier crackdowns targeted the southern port city of Basra, Baghdad's Sadr City district and Mosul in the north.

Amarah, which has roughly 450,000 residents, is one of the main gateways along Iraq's border with Iran. It has not been particularly violent in recent years, but U.S. and Iraqi officials say that having control over the city will allow them to reduce the flow of weapons and Iranian-trained fighters into Iraq.

Maysan Gov. Adel al-Muhoudir said that recent discussions between the government and local leaders had helped the operation start smoothly.

"Calm is surrounding the streets of the city, and the Iraqi forces are in control of all its access points," he said. "There is extraordinary cooperation from citizens."

The government announced the operation last week and offered militiamen a four-day period in which to turn themselves in and hand over banned weapons, including mortars, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades.

Col. Mahdi al-Asadi, a spokesman for security operations in the province, said soldiers had seized large caches of weapons this week.

Adnan al-Silawi, director of the Sadr office in Amarah, said Iraqi troops had detained several of the movement's leaders without cause and that a Sadr office employee who was detained two days before the operation began was released Thursday with a broken arm.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said Iraqi troops took into custody only fighters who had surrendered and others who were known to have committed crimes.

"Frankly, we as authorities do not care about the titles or the names," he said. "We care about the type of crimes committed by these outlaws."

Khalaf said the government has detained about 700 people and is assessing the evidence against them.

The Iraqi army deployed roughly 1,200 soldiers to Amarah, including many who have been stationed in nearby Basra. When Iraqi troops swept into Basra in March for the first Iraqi-led operation, militiamen fought back aggressively, and clashes soon spread to Baghdad's Sadr City. The operation unleashed a wave of violence that lasted several weeks, but the Iraqi army is now in control of both areas.

U.S. forces deployed some units to Amarah in support of the operation, but U.S. military officials stressed that Iraqis are in the forefront.

"The operation in Amarah is planned, led and executed by" Iraqi security forces, Lt. Col. Paul Swiergosz, a U.S. military spokesman, said in an e-mail. Swiergosz said Iraqi troops had demonstrated in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul that "they are capable of planning and conducting successful, largely independent operations."

Special correspondent Aahad Ali reported from Basra. Special correspondents Dalya Hassan and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company