Iraqi Forces Target Sadr's Militias

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In southern Iraq, Iraqi security forces have launched a fresh campaign against Shiite militias loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The troops met no resistance as they entered the city of Amara, a hub for smugglers bringing weapons in from Iran.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Iraq's security forces have been operating in a city near the border with Iran. The city is Al'Amarah. It's a Shiite Muslim city. It's considered a stronghold for militias that operate outside government authority, and it is also the hub for smugglers who bring weapons in from Iran.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro got an early look at the operation called Promise of Peace, designed to get control of that city. And Lourdes, is this a promise they'll be able to keep?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that remains to be seen. This was a very different operation, Steve, than the ones we saw in Sadr City and Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra. They gave four days' warning. None of the Mahdi Army militia members that were in Amarah put up a fight. In fact, senior leaders were said to have fled the city. Not a shot was fired.

Amarah was a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric's militia. After the Basra operation, many fighters were thought to have fled from Basra to Amarah because the province there, the capital of which is Amarah, is governed by Sadr's followers.

Now, from what I could tell, the operation went smoothly. There were thousands of national police, Iraqi army, Americans. They were doing house-to-house searches. They found significant weapons caches. The U.S. military alleges that Amarah was used as an armed smuggling route and they are expecting to find a lot more arms.

INSKEEP: What kind of a city is this and what kind of a sense of it did you get while moving around this week?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amarah is really poor. It's made of squat buildings, crumbling brick, unpaved roads. And it's been forgotten for a long time. The city has been the scene of intermittent fighting between the Mahdi Army and members of the Badr organization, which is another militia loyal to a major Shiite political party. The British had control of Amarah until 2006. They handed it over to the Iraqis and it essentially became completely lawless.

So walking around the city, talking to people there, they were very relieved that the Iraqi security forces had shown up. They were especially relieved that there wasn't fighting, 'cause they'd seen what happened in Basra, they saw what happened in Sadr City, and they were really afraid that there was going to be this kind of urban fighting in Amarah, but that didn't happen.

INSKEEP: Now, I guess there's a couple of different ways to look at an operation like this. One is simply the Iraqi government trying to assert its legal authority and another is different Shiite factions playing politics. Do you have a sense of which is happening here?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that's a very good question, and I think it depends on which side you are coming from. Overnight they've arrested five Sadr local politicians. They arrested the Sadrists' mayor yesterday. Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has stressed that this is not an operation targeting Sadrists, but they still seem to be doing that.

You know, going after Sadr makes Nouri al-Maliki popular with the Sunnis and Shiite parties within his coalition that are rivals to the Sadrists, so it's a win-win for him. The Sunnis see him as non-sectarian because he's going after a Shiite group. Members of a Shiite coalition like him going after the Sadrists because it erodes Sadr's power ahead of some very important provincial elections.

So the Sadrists are saying this has political motivations, but Nouri al-Maliki is coming out strong in this. He's showing that he can extend his government's control and the control of his Iraqi army throughout Iraq.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, speaking with us from Baghdad; you're able to get to al-Amarah, you're able to drive around, you're able to talk to people on the streets. Should we take from that that Iraq is getting a little bit safer than it was?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Absolutely. There is no doubt that I would not have been able to do this six months ago. I drove down to Basra last month, I drove down to Amarah yesterday. I've been down to Hillah. This is all unembedded. This is with my cars, with my team. And so I think that we can definitely say that it is getting safer out there. On the road, there are a lot of checkpoints. There are now, we're hearing from U.S. military, 559,000 members of Iraq's security forces spread out across the country, and you do feel their presence.

INSKEEP: Meaning that you felt confident making this drive. It wasn't like a roll of the dice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it isn't - things aren't totally safe by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, there is a long way to go here and anything could've happened. But there is a sense that you can move around more freely and Iraqis are feeling that; not just foreigners like me, but Iraqis say - the ones that I've talked to - that they feel that they can travel more freely. They aren't as worried now that things are going to be happening like they did before - kidnappings and random arrests and things like that.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reporting today in Baghdad.

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