AMARA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi security forces launched a crackdown on Shi’ite militias in the southern city of Amara on Thursday, the latest drive in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s campaign to impose order in Iraq.
Amara, home to 250,000 people, is a stronghold of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Witnesses saw police raiding houses of suspected militants, backed by U.S. troops in armored vehicles blocking roads.
There appeared to be no resistance and residents said they had not heard one gunshot, but some Sadr aides said members of his political movement were being unfairly targeted.
Army Major-General Tareq Abdul Wahab, commanding the sweep, said arrests had been made and the operation was “moving smoothly.” Defence ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari told al-Jazeera television 17 people had been held.
“This operation has no time limit. Our forces will stay in Amara and will not withdraw until we achieve security,” he said.
Among those detained were Amara’s mayor, Rafea Abdul-Jabbar, and a member of the municipal council, both Sadr supporters, police sources told Reuters. Sadrists said they were innocent.
“Some arrests are unfairly targeting the wrong people. They seem to be randomly arresting officials in a violation of the prime minister’s promises that they would not,” a Shi’ite cleric and Sadr aide, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
Many Sadr supporters suspect Maliki’s crackdown on Mehdi Army militants is an attempt to sideline their movement before October 1 provincial elections. Sadr has nonetheless ordered his fighters to cooperate with security forces.
“We stand with the government on imposing the law but ... the law must be imposed on everybody,” Bahaa al-Araji, a member of Sadr’s parliamentary bloc, told an Iraqi television station.
Iraqi troops and police have tightened their grip on Amara for days, urging militias to hand over heavier weapons such as rockets and mortars.
Police said they found an underground cache of weapons on Thursday. Another cache was found a few days ago.
Local police spokesman Colonel Mehdi al-Asadi said a curfew had been imposed on the areas of Maysan province being searched.
U.S. helicopters hovered over Amara, many residents stayed home and some shops were closed. Traffic jams built up on its outskirts as police searched vehicles entering the city.
Besides being under the influence of militias, Amara has been a haven for arms smugglers from neighboring Iran.
Maliki has previously 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.
SADR’S TWIN STRATEGY
Analysts say Sadr’s conciliatory stance shows he is pursuing two goals -- regaining control of his unruly militia while avoiding confrontation with the government, despite intense pressure from some of his own commanders to respond forcefully to the crackdowns.
Maliki has been criticized in the past for lacking resolve to stabilize Iraq -- especially in cracking down on fellow Shi’ites. But he has gained a measure of respect at home and abroad for the offensives, which have helped reduce violence to the lowest level in more than four years.
The campaigns also underscore the government’s desire to take more control of security from 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
In a sign recent security gains are fragile, a truck bomb killed 63 people in Baghdad on Tuesday. The U.S. military blamed Shi’ite militants for the attack.
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