“Mahdi Army militiamen have long enjoyed a free rein in Amarah,” the article notes. Sadr’s militia is just making its control official, with little or no expectation of a meaningful response from Nouri al-Maliki’s government. “Shiite militia takes over Iraqi city,” from AP:
BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Shiite militia run by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized control of a southern Iraqi city on Friday in one of the boldest acts of defiance yet by the country’s powerful, unofficial armies, witnesses and police said.
Mahdi Army fighters stormed three main police stations Friday morning, residents said, planting explosives that flattened the buildings in Amarah, a city just 30 miles from the Iranian border that was under British command until August, when it was returned to Iraqi government control.
About 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were patrolling in commandeered police vehicles, witnesses said. Other fighters set up roadblocks on routes into the city and sound trucks circulated telling residents to stay indoors.
The militiamen later withdrew from their positions and lifted their siege of police headquarters under a temporary truce negotiated with an al-Sadr envoy. It was not clear on Friday afternoon whether security forces had reasserted control over the city or whether the cleric knew about his militia’s planned takeover in advance.
The Iraqi army dispatched two companies to Amarah from Basra, the south’s largest city. Mohammad al-Alaskari, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said “the situation is still tense.”
The events in Amarah — involving a dispute between the Mahdi Army and local security forces believed controlled by the rival Badr Brigade militia — highlight the threat of wider violence between rival Shiite factions, who have entrenched themselves among the majority Shiite population and are blamed for killings of rival Sunnis.
Badr, of course, was the site of the first major battle fought by Muslims, led by Muhammad: an attack on a Quraish caravan returning from Syria.
Al-Sadr’s envoy, whose identity remains unknown, was due to meet with the provincial governor, the local Mahdi Army commander and al-Sadr’s representative in Amarah, a city of 750,000.
Shiite militia violence, mainly against the country’s Sunni minority, has ravaged Iraq since February when a Shiite holy place in Samara was blown up. The violence has been on the increase, but this is the first recent fighting that has pitted Shiites
against one another on such a scale.
Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, a former Shiite activist, won the top government post last spring thanks in part to the support of al-Sadr, who controls 30 of the 275 seats in the national parliament and five Cabinet posts.
In a sign of al-Sadr’s influence, al-Maliki this week ordered the release of one of the young cleric’s top lieutenants, Sheik Mazen al-Sa’edi, who was arrested by U.S. troops in Baghdad for alleged links to sectarian death squads. He visited al-Sadr in the holy city of Najaf Wednesday, the day al-Sa’edi was freed.
Mahdi Army militiamen have long enjoyed a free rein in Amarah, the provincial capital of the southern province of Maysan. Militiamen in Amarah often summon local government officials for meetings at their offices. They roam the city with their weapons, manipulate the local police and set up checkpoints at will.
Since British troops left Amarah in August, residents say the militia has been involved in a series of killings, including slayings of merchants suspected of selling alcohol and women alleged to have engaged in behavior deemed immoral by militiamen.
Fighting broke out Thursday after Qassim al-Tamimi, the provincial head of police intelligence and a leading member of the rival Shiite Badr Brigade militia, was killed by a roadside bomb. In retaliation, his family kidnapped the teenage brother of the Mahdi Army commander in Amarah, Sheik Fadel al-Bahadli, to demand the hand-over of al-Tamimi’s killers.