Rival militia hunts down Shiite police in Iraqi city as army stands aside

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Militiamen loyal to an anti-American cleric re-emerged Monday in the southern city of Amarah, hunting down and killing four policemen from a rival militia in a brutal Shiite-on-Shiite settling of scores.

The Iraqi army set up a few roadblocks but did not interfere in the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters after police fled the streets. The latest attacks came despite a public call by al-Sadr to halt the tribal vendetta, suggesting that splinter groups were developing within his militia.

The spread of revenge killings among Shiites in their southern heartland has opened a new and ominous front as American forces struggle to control insurgent and sectarian bloodshed to the north -- especially in Baghdad.

With the fighting weighing heavily on the prospects of Republican candidates in midterm elections two weeks away, the military on Monday announced four new U.S. deaths -- a Marine and three soldiers. So far this month, 87 American service members have been killed in Iraq.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced a military crackdown to tame the country's staggering armed violence, taking special aim at continuing lawlessness in Amarah.

But his statement, while notable for its timing, appeared toothless, especially given that his army was standing aside in Amarah and has fallen short of delivering troops requested by the Americans for the ongoing security crackdown in Baghdad.

"The Iraqi government hereby warns all groups with illegal weapons to refrain from any armed activities that undermines public security. Let everyone be informed that orders have been issued to the armed forces to stop any transgression against state power and to confront any illegal attempt regardless of its source," al-Maliki wrote in his decree.

"The Iraqi government also calls in particular on the people of Maysan province to exercise caution and care in the face of attempts to drag the people of one nation into fighting and strife," he said. Amarah is the capital of Maysan province.

Hoping to find a political solution, the Bush administration has asked the al-Maliki's government to issue an unconditional amnesty to Sunni Muslim insurgents, prominent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman told The Associated Press. He is a confidant of Jalal Talabani, the country's president.

He and Hassan al-Seneid, a member of parliament close to al-Maliki, also told AP that U.S. officials were engaged in ongoing talks with members of the insurgency, including members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party, to seek an end to the fighting that has plagued American forces in Baghdad, surrounding areas and sprawling Anbar province to the west.

Members of al-Qaida in Iraq are not included in either the talks or the U.S. amnesty proposal, which would require Iraqi government approval and is by no means certain since it is controlled by Shiites.

The Bush administration said Monday there were no plans for dramatic shifts in policy or for ultimatums to the Iraqi government to force progress.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. government and military officials were working with Iraq to set broad time frames for when Iraqis can take over 16 provinces that are still under the control of U.S. troops. He said officials were not talking about penalizing the Iraqis if they don't hit certain benchmarks.

Despite new tactics to curb the bloodshed, U.S. and British attempts to disengage in Iraq by handing control of territory to the Iraqi army has only served to set the stage for more violence in some places.

The conflict in Amarah, for example, began a month after British forces withdrew. Twenty-five police and Mahdi Army fighters were killed late last week when the militia stormed into the city seeking revenge for the killing of its commander in the region.

The Mahdi Army re-emerged Monday after two days of relative calm and killed four more Badr Brigades-aligned policemen, dragging them out of their houses and dumping their bodies elsewhere. For their part, Badr Brigades fighters beheaded the kidnapped nephew of the slain Mahdi commander.

The Badr Brigade militia is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, the dominant Shiite group in al-Maliki's ruling coalition. But al-Sadr's faction is also an important part of the same coalition.

Both groups are believed to receive training, arms and money from the Shiite theocracy that runs neighboring Iran. Much of the top SCIRI leadership and Badr Brigade chieftains took refuge in Iran during Saddam's rule, which was marked by brutal persecution of Shiites.

Despite the lawlessness in Amarah, officials at Britain's Ministry of Defense said Monday after meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair that the rest of Maysan province was expected to be handed over to Iraqi authorities either next month or early next year.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, in London for talks with Blair, declined to confirm the plan, but said he expected significant developments in the next year.

"We understand this cannot be an open-ended commitment by the international community. At the end of the day it is up to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to establish security," Saleh told reporters.

In Baghdad, public festivities were rare to mark the Sunni start of Eid al-Fitr, the feasting days at the end of the Ramadan month of fasting. Several bombings in the city a day earlier targeted people shopping for holiday food and gifts.

Concerned over continuing attacks, police banned motorbikes from the city streets after reports that a number of planned bombings using the two-wheeled vehicles.

Fears of attacks kept Sunnis indoors, away from traditional visits to family and friends and strolls in the city streets and parks.

"We are telephoning friends and relatives or sending text messages to wish them a happy holiday," said Nadhim Aziz, a math teacher from the city's mixed district of New Baghdad.

While October is on pace to be the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the siege of Fallujah in November 2004, the toll for Iraqis has reached staggering proportions.

According to an Associated Press count, October is on track to be the deadliest month for Iraqis since the AP began tracking deaths in April 2005. Through Monday, at least 961 Iraqis have been killed in war-related violence, an average of more than 41 each day.

That compares to an average daily death toll of about 27 since April 2005. The AP count includes civilians, government officials and police and security forces, and is considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported. The United Nations has said 100 Iraqis are being killed each day.

AP News Research Center in New York contributed to this report, as did correspondents Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sinan Salaheddin and Hamza Hendawi in Iraq and Lolita Baldor in Washington.

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