Iraq forces hunt Shi'ite fighters in new crackdown

Iraqi police and soldiers swept house to house through the southern city of Amara and surrounding Maysan province on Thursday in a new crackdown on Shi’ite fighters and illegal weapons.

The operation, called Basha’ar al-Salam (Promise of Peace), backed by United States troops, was launched overnight after the expiry of a four-day deadline to militiamen to surrender themselves and their weapons.

“The operation started overnight. The situation is normal and there has been no trouble,” said Colonel Mehdi al-Asadi, police spokesperson in Maysan.

About 60 fighters surrendered to Iraqi forces hours before the deadline, while six men who were wanted by police have been arrested since the start of the assault.

One of the detained suspects was Raaf Abdul Jabbar, mayor of Amara and a member of the Shi’ite radical movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, a top security official said.

Iraqi ground forces commander General Ali Ghedan told reporters in Amara that security forces had seized weapons including rocket launchers and mortars as well as large amounts of ammunition.

“They were left in public squares and canals,” he said, adding the operation had not faced any resistance since it began early on Thursday.

“We have received an incredible response from the people and things are going peacefully. It is difficult to search every house but we will clean the city [Amara] of gunmen and keep the weapons in the hands of the state.”

But a top Iraqi police general who was one of the lead commanders of the operation said most Shi’ite militiamen had fled before the crackdown.

“We are conducting house-to-house searches, especially of those houses that are suspected of holding weapons, including government institutions and schools,” he said, adding US soldiers were offering logistical and medical support to Iraqi troops.

A Defence Ministry statement said all the main roads and bridges leading out of Maysan to adjacent provinces have been closed to prevent militiamen from fleeing there.

US commanders say Maysan had become a major centre for arms smuggling into Iraq from overwhelmingly Shi’ite Iran just over the border.

British troops transferred control of Maysan to Iraqi forces in April 2007, but security in the province has remained fragile with fighting between rival Shi’ite groups trying to gain supremacy.

Iraq’s south is the source of the majority of the country’s oil output and officials say the crackdown on militias is aimed at ending the widespread smuggling of crude from which many derive funding.

But some analysts say the move is also an attempt by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Shi’ite ally, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, to weaken their rivals in the Sadr movement ahead of provincial elections due in October.

Sadr aides have repeatedly charged that their movement has been singled out in the crackdown, prompting orders from the prime minister to the security forces on Wednesday to refrain from random arrests of Sadr supporters.

In previous crackdowns, such arrests of Sadr supporters stoked fighting between militiamen and the security forces.—AFP

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