President Bush said Friday the war was at a difficult stage and that he was
preparing to consult about a change in tactics with key generals ¡ª 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.
"We are constantly adjusting tactics so we can achieve our objectives, and
right now it's tough," the president said in an interview with The Associated
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 city.
Al-Maliki had dispatched an emergency security delegation that included the
minister of state for security affairs and top officials from the interior and
defense ministries, said Yassin Majid, the prime minister's spokesman. Al-Sadr's
representatives rushed to Amarah from the Shiite holy city of Najaf to 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