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U.S., Iraqi forces meet no Sadr resistance in Amara

Iraqi troops took the southern city without a shot being fired from Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

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Silawi echoes what the majority of Sadrists view as an onslaught by SIIC and Badr, who are the force in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling Shiite coalition, that has accompanied the US surge in troops at the start of 2007 to diminish or even finish off Sadr's movement ahead of crucial provincial elections tentatively scheduled for October.

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"They say that they have come to cleanse Amara of its bad elements … but ultimately the Iraqi government follows whatever America and [President] Bush orders," asserts one of Sadr's followers attending the prayers held in the neighborhood of Hay al-Hussein, who gave his name as Abu Zahra al-Mussawi.

Indeed, many in this southern city see the new campaign as being orchestrated by the US in the name of supporting Mr. Maliki's government and Iraqi forces. There are indications already that SIIC and Badr are seeking to replicate in Maysan Province and its seat, Amara, what they have accomplished in other southern provinces, which is to purge local security forces of all Sadrist influence.

In Baghdad's Sadr City, where the US Army had to lead the fight against the militia, US soldiers are hunkered down in the southern quarter after a mid-May cease-fire, trying to chip away at Sadr's sway through civil affairs and projects.

Moqtada's restraint

Everything indicates that Sadr's decision not to fight in Amara was preplanned and tactical.

Mr. Ani of the Gulf Research Center says he believes it is not Sadr's full strategy to fight the occupation but it does gain him much sympathy in Iraq and throughout the Arab and Muslim world, especially in Iran.

The movement vacated its main offices in the city, formerly the headquarters of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, before the start of the operation. Members of the national police now guard the empty building. A sign bearing the name of Sadr's movement is spray-painted white.

The movement also purged its ranks and distanced itself from individuals who have committed crimes or were involved in extortion and burglary rackets in the name of the Mahdi Army, according to Silawi.

Some of the worst culprits, according to one resident, were members of a splinter group calling themselves the "People of the Cause" that believes that Sadr himself is the incarnation of the long vanished Imam Mahdi – the messiahlike figure of Shiite faith.

Hamid al-Khazaali, the Mahdi Army chief in Maysan, along with most of the senior fighters in the province, has long gone underground. There is talk that they are sheltering in neighboring Iran, which shares a relatively porous border with Maysan, which has been the refuge of rebels throughout history. The US military has continuously accused Tehran of supporting the so-called "Special Groups" (SGs) of the militia.

Until late April, Mr. Khazaali was involved in several rounds of negotiations with tribal leaders and officials from other parties including rival Badr aimed at convincing him to meet Maliki's demands that he hand over his weapons and a number of wanted militiamen, according to several people who took part in these talks.