Iraq army tightens grip on southern city

* Iraqi forces complete deployment in Amara

* Cleric's militia told not to fight

* Obama says encouraged by drop in violence in Iraq

AMARA, Iraq, June 16 (Reuters) - Iraq's security forces tightened their grip on the southern city of Amara on Monday and appealed to Shi'ite militias to hand over heavy weapons before a government deadline for launching a crackdown.

"Our military forces ... have completed their deployment to ensure control of the whole city," the Iraqi Army's deputy chief of staff, Nasir al-Abadi, said in a statement.

The show of force in Amara, a stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia, is the latest stage in the government drive to extend its authority to areas that had been controlled by Shi'ite militias or Sunni insurgents.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has given "outlaws" and "criminals" in Amara and the rest of the southern province of Maysan until Wednesday to surrender and hand over weapons.

He has authorised security forces to launch major operations from Thursday, saying the state must end "chaos" and crime in the impoverished province bordering Iran.

Abadi appealed to "deceived people" to seize the opportunity and take their weapons to collection points at the local airport, stadium and police stations.

Maliki has already sent the Iraqi army, with U.S. support, into Mehdi Army bastions in Baghdad and the southern oil city of Basra and launched a campaign against al Qaeda Sunni Arab insurgents in the northern city of Mosul.

Maliki, criticised in the past for lacking resolve to stabilise Iraq, has gained a measure of respect at home and abroad with the offensives that have helped reduce violence to the lowest level in over four years.

The campaigns underscore the Shi'ite-led government's desire to take more control of security from the 150,000 U.S. troops in the country.

The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said last month that al Qaeda in Iraq had "never been closer to defeat".

But in a sign the group remains a threat, al Qaeda militants simultaneously detonated four bombs targeting homes and vehicles of members of the Iraqi security forces in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, on Monday, the U.S. military said.

A policeman was killed and four people were wounded, including a policeman's child, the military said.


U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, visiting Michigan, said he was encouraged by improved security in Iraq but underlined his support for a pullout of U.S. troops.

How long U.S. troops stay will be a key issue in November's election, with Republican Senator John McCain opposing Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. troops within 16 months of taking office.

Success in Amara could boost Maliki's image before provincial elections due on Oct. 1, seen as the battleground for a power struggle that could redraw Iraq's political map.

Army and police units with tanks and other armoured vehicles have moved into the city of around 250,000 people, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad, that is reputed to be a centre for smuggling arms from neighbouring Iran.

Local officials and residents expect the operation to be peaceful, avoiding the heavy fighting between militia members and the army that broke out in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City.

Sadr has sent orders to Mehdi Army members in Amara not to resist the security forces.

A statement on the website of Maysan Governor Adel al-Muhoudir, a Sadr supporter, said: "The governor of Maysan confirms all political and religious organisations, including the Sadr office, are behind the plan to impose the law."

The province's police chief, Ali al-Maliki, was removed before the operation and replaced with an army brigadier-general, local officials said.

A security source in Amara said a number of senior police officers in the city would also be changed. The source said that instead of handing in weapons at the collection centres, militants were dumping them in rivers, on streets or on farms.

Police were gathering up all kinds of abandoned weapons, such as mortars, machineguns, sniper rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades, he said.