Fighting slows in Amarah

Conflict between Iraqi police, Shiite militia killed 22, hurt 100

October 21, 2006|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- As hundreds of masked, black-clad men descended on their normally quiet city yesterday and gunfire echoed outside, Ahmed and Roqayah Jasim locked the doors of their modest home. They prayed for themselves and their three young children.

Then they heard a knock on the door. Ahmed Jasim, a 33-year-old teacher, reluctantly opened it. A fighter no older than 20 stood outside holding a sniper rifle.

"He didn't threaten me," Ahmed Jasim said later, still stunned. "He just asked me, like a favor, `Can I use your roof to shoot from?' And I said, `No you can't. I have a family.' He seemed to understand, and so he left."

By last night, two days of fighting in the southern city of Amarah between police and the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, had eased. The national government rushed soldiers and a high-level security delegation to the city, led by National Security Minister Shirwan Waili. Al-Sadr also sent representatives. Government officials and tribal elders met into the evening, trying to negotiate a solution to the conflict.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington that he believed that Iraqi security forces had regained control of the area.

But the two-day offensive by the Mahdi Army highlighted how difficult it has become for the central government and its security forces to rein in Shiite militias, both in the capital and in the south.

The militias fired mortars at police stations where officers had barricaded themselves. When police ran out of ammunition and fled, militiamen blew up at least two police stations. During 48 hours of ferocious street battles in the oil-rich city of 300,000, 22 people were killed and almost 100 others were injured.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited al-Sadr earlier in the week in the holy city of Najaf to ask for his support in clamping down on armed militiamen who kill with impunity. But al-Maliki also depends on political support from al-Sadr, who controls 30 seats in parliament. And despite al-Sadr's intermittent calls for calm, violence has continued unabated.

Amarah residents said they were worried about the future.

"Today we have those delegations, but what about tomorrow?" asked Khalil Rasheed, a 55-year-old shopkeeper, who said Amarah is beset by armed thugs bent on enforcing religious rule. "The situation is more dangerous than people imagine."

"I'm worried, seeing those people taking control," said Haitham Sadek, Jasim's friend and colleague. "The future will be horrible if these people are going to control" the city, he said. Shiite militiamen have whipped those who are caught drinking alcohol and have killed women accused of adultery, Sadek said.

Handing over control to the Iraqi army and police is key to the strategy of U.S.-led military forces, but the Iraqis often have proved inadequate, especially when faced with Shiite militia.

During a similar battle with Shiite militiamen in Diwaniya in late August, American troops eventually had to come to the aid of Iraqi soldiers.

Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington that there would be setbacks when U.S. and British forces hand control to Iraqi forces and that the U.S.-led coalition would step in and try to restore order.

"It is never going to be a straight, smooth, steady path," Rumsfeld said at a news conference. "The biggest mistake would be to not pass things over to the Iraqis, create a dependency on their part instead of developing strength and capacity and competence."

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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