Shiite militia briefly seizes Amarah

Updated: 2006-10-21 10:10

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 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 Press.

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 north.

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.