Shiite Militia Briefly Seizes Iraqi City

Shiite Militia Briefly Seizes Iraqi City
October 21st, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Shiite Militia Briefly Seizes Iraqi City

Shiite Militia Briefly Seizes Iraqi City
Media: The Associated Press
Date: 21 October 2006


BAGHDAD, Iraq_Black-uniformed, hooded gunmen loyal to an anti-American
Shiite cleric briefly seized the major southern city of Amarah on Friday in
an audacious drive against local security forces, largely controlled by
Iraq's other main Shiite militia.

Twenty-five gunmen and police died in gunbattles before the Iraqi army moved
in to retake the city of 750,000 people at the head of Iraq's famous
marshlands where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers draw close together. Amarah
is 30 miles from the border with Iran, where the Shiite theocracy is said to
be funding, arming and training both rival militias.

The Amarah showdown between the two virtual private armies highlighted the
potential for an all-out conflict between them and their political sponsors,
both with large blocs in parliament and important to the survival of Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki's shaky 4-month-old government.

It also underlined the deep underlying rift that exists between the
firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's faction, whose forces took Amarah on
Friday, and that of the more traditional but powerful Supreme Council for
the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, headed by key power broker
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who spent decades in Iranian exile during Saddam
Hussein's rule.

The U.S. exit strategy depends on returning military and political control
to the Iraqi government, but outbreaks of civil conflict raise doubts about
how long that will take and add urgency to a policy review under way among
Bush administration political and military officials.

President Bush conceded Friday that "right now it's tough" for American
forces in Iraq, but the White House said he would not change U.S. strategy
in the face of pre-election polls that show voters are upset. Bush said the
war was at a difficult stage and that he was preparing to consult about a
change in tactics with key generals _ Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S.
commander in the Middle East, and Gen. George Casey, who leads the U.S.-led
Multinational Forces in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that despite the violence in
Amarah, it was not a strategic error for the British to turn over control of
the city to the Iraqis in August.

"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," Rumsfeld said.

The clashes marred the Muslim day of prayer for the second Friday in a row
in cities where American and British forces had only recently ceded military
control to Iraqi security forces and the army. More than 100 people were
slain in Balad this past week, most of them by Shiite deaths squads drawn
largely from al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

The Mahdi Army held Amarah for several hours in an embarrassingly strong
showing against the local police and security forces, controlled by the Badr
Brigade militia loyal to SCIRI, the country's dominant political force with
deep and historic links to Iran.

Elsewhere in Iraq on Friday, police reported the deaths of 34 people,
including 10 killed in mortar attacks overnight in Balad, an hour north of
the capital, and a family of nine Shiites shot to death when gunmen burst
into their home in Aziziyah, 35 miles southeast of Baghdad.

A U.S. soldier was killed when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb
southwest of the capital. A Salvadoran Army captain was killed and four
soldiers were wounded when their convoy hit an explosive device in Wasit
province, El Salvador's defense department said.

Until recently, Baghdad had been the focus of sectarian and Sunni insurgent
killers, prompting the United States to launch a drive in August to rid the
capital of the gunmen and torturers. An additional 12,000 U.S. and Iraqi
forces were put on the streets for the task.

But two months into the operation, the U.S. combat death toll in October
alone stood at 75 _ likely to be the highest for any month in nearly two
years. Attacks on Americans jumped by 22 percent in the first three weeks of
the holy month of Ramadan, when compared to the three previous weeks. The
U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said the bid to cleanse the capital was
failing and needs to be refocused.

Against that background, the Amarah turmoil and killings looked more
ominous, especially as it marked one of the first serious armed
confrontations among Shiites. Most recent killings in Iraq involved
tit-for-tat attacks between Shiites and Sunni Arabs, the minority sect in
Iraq that dominated the country until Saddam's ouster.

Amarah is a major population center in the resource-rich yet impoverished
south and a traditional center of Shiite defiance to successive Iraqi
regimes. Its marshlands were drained by Saddam during the 1990s in reprisal
for the city's role in the Shiite uprising after the Gulf War. Saddam
ordered the killing of tens of thousands of Shiites in retribution.

The British military spokesman in Basra, headquarters for Britain's 7,200
soldiers in Iraq, sought to play down the seriousness of Friday's fighting,
noting that 600 Iraqi soldiers were able to force Mahdi Army fighters off
the streets, arrange a truce and return quiet to the city by Friday
afternoon. Estimates of the number of Mahdi Army fighters ranged between 200
and 800.

"It's like when you take the training wheels off a bike. There are some
wobbles. This was a pretty big wobble, but it's still moving in the right
direction," said spokesman Maj. Charlie Burbridge.

"They (Iraqi security forces) have applied a solution and at the moment it's
holding," he said. "At the moment, it's tense but calm."

Five-hundred British soldiers were on standby if the government called for
help. Burbridge said 25 gunmen and police were killed, adding that a British
drone overhead the city recorded the events all day.

At the height of the fighting Friday, AP Television News video showed thick,
black smoke billowing from behind barricades at a police station, much of it
from vehicles set on fire inside the compound. Hooded gunmen roamed the
streets with Kalashnikov automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade
launchers. Most of the streets were deserted except for the gunmen.

The militiamen later withdrew from their positions and lifted their siege
under a truce brokered by an al-Sadr envoy as the Iraqi forces entered the

The fighting came just days after al-Maliki met with al-Sadr at the cleric's
Najaf headquarters to enlist support for capping sectarian violence and to
bolster his government, which is increasingly at odds with the United States
for not disbanding the militias, among other issues.

The timing of the violence may have indicated al-Sadr and other Mahdi Army
commanders did not have full control over individual units, lending weight
to speculation that Shiite gunmen were splitting off from the main
organization to pursue their own agendas. The U.S. military said it counts
23 separate militias in Baghdad alone.

The Amarah fighting was believed to have begun over the killing Thursday of
Qassim al-Tamimi, the provincial head of police intelligence and a leading
member of the Badr Brigade militia.

In retaliation, his family kidnapped the teenage brother of the Mahdi Army
commander in Amarah, Sheik Fadel al-Bahadli, and demanded he find and hand
over al-Tamimi's killers. The Mahdi Army then stormed into the city
overnight and held it for several hours Friday. It was not clear if
al-Bahadli's brother was released.

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