June 14, 2008 / 4:29 PM / 11 years ago

Iraq prepares new drive against armed groups

* Iraqi forces in Amara for crackdown on Shi’ite militias

* Bush expects long term security pact with Iraq

* Sadr sends delegation of clerics to Amara for talks



By Haider al-Nasrallah

AMARA, Iraq, June 14 (Reuters) - Iraq has sent army and police units to the southern city of Amara for a new crackdown against Shi’ite militias, local officials said on Saturday.

The operation is the latest stage in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s drive to stamp his government’s authority on areas of the country previously controlled by Shi’ite militias or Sunni Arab insurgents.

"The decision to undertake the operation has been taken, but the zero hour has not been set yet," Adel al-Muhoudir, governor of Maysan province, told Reuters.

Iraqi tanks were seen on major streets in Amara. Iraqi security forces patrolled and many checkpoints had been set up in the city.

The city is a stronghold of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who agreed to a ceasefire after U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched a major crackdown on his Mehdi Army militia in Basra in March.

The security official, who asked not to be named, said the aim of the operation was to arrest wanted people and collect "heavy" weapons. It would also target armed groups and some members of the Mehdi Army, he said.

A spokesman for U.S. forces declined to give details of the operation, saying it was "Iraqi-led and planned".

U.S. forces, which invaded Iraq in 2003, are gradually handing over more security responsibilities to Iraqi forces.

U.S. President George W. Bush said on Saturday that he expected to reach a long-term security pact with Iraq despite Maliki saying that talks on extending a U.S. troop presence in Iraq were deadlocked.

"If I were a betting man, we’ll reach an agreement with the Iraqis," Bush told a news conference in Paris. "Of course we’re there at their invitation."



WARNING

Helicopters dropped leaflets on Amara, a city of about 250,000 people 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad, urging residents to stay at home and not to interfere with the operations.

"Iraqi security forces are currently implementing an operation to arrest all outlaws," one leaflet said.

Iraqi armoured vehicles had arrived from the southern city of Basra and police units had come from Baghdad and elsewhere, the security official said.

"Army and police have fanned out all over the city in a way we didn’t witness before, on the main streets, roads and bridges," said local resident Muhsin Abdul-Hassan.

Amara is capital of Maysan Province, which borders Iran and is one of Iraq’s poorest regions despite its oil reserves.

Sadr ordered a delegation of clerics to go to Amara for talks with regional officials on how the operation would be carried out, said Sayyid Kareem al-Battat, a delegation member.

Battat said the delegation carried instructions from Sadr for Mehdi Army members to respect the ceasefire ordered by the cleric.

He said the provincial governor had promised security forces would respect human rights and that a committee of tribal leaders would supervise the operation.

"We have no objection to implementing the law and arresting wanted people. We don’t think that the operation is directed at Sadr partisans because we are all brothers in the city," Battat said.

Maliki has won praise from inside Iraq and abroad for leading a crackdown on Shi’ite militias in Baghdad and Basra and on al Qaeda insurgents in the northern city of Mosul.

The operations have bolstered government authority and helped reduce violence, which has fallen to its lowest level in more than four years.

(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary and Aws Qusay in Baghdad and Matt Spetalnick and Jeremy Pelofsky in Paris; Writing by Adrian Croft, Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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