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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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Sheikh Ali al-Fartousi, a local tribal leader who was among those attending the meetings, said that the main sticking point was Khazaali's refusal to hand over many on the list because in his view they were legitimate fighters who resisted US-led coalition forces.

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"He was very polite and nice but kept saying, 'We have the right to resist the occupation,' " says Sheikh Fartousi.

Driving out the outlaws

Abu Muntazar al-Bakhati, the head of Badr in Maysan, denies that his group is aiming to oust the Sadrists from the province and describes the problem as being that of outlaws who have flourished because of a weak local police and government – both happen to be dominated by the Sadrists.

Mr. Bakhati says the entire police force, estimated at 13,000 to 16,000, has to be replaced. Already a new chief has been appointed while 20 policemen have been arrested along with Amara's mayor and the governor's private secretary.

A giant billboard of Sadr next to Badr's main offices in the Hateen intersection has been dismantled.

Fartousi, who supports SIIC and its head, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, says a new pro-government tribal council will be formed in Maysan and that he and other tribal elders have agreed to provide lists of recruits they would personally vouch for to join the restructured and expanded local security forces.

But despite the absence of any reaction from the Mahdi Army in Amara, Maliki's government is flexing its muscles while hoping it will not be faced with a repeat of the Basra experience when hundreds of its soldiers deserted the fight and the battles ended in an Iranian-brokered truce with Sadr.

It has sent a force of several thousand national policemen and soldiers to Amara. The US military has also dispatched an undisclosed contingent of ground troops and special forces and is providing air cover for the operation, according to Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf of the Ministry of Interior, who has also come to Amara.

US fighter jets have been roaring through the skies of Amara, and Humvees and armored trucks can be seen occasionally on city streets, but most American soldiers are stationed at a military airbase on the outskirts.

General Khalaf says the focus is on seizing weapon and ammunition caches and apprehending the hundreds of militants on a government wanted list topped by Khazaali, the Mahdi Army commander.

Most Amara residents have mixed feelings about the operation, with many fearing an inevitable backlash by the Sadrists.

"The situation was bad and required the intervention of the central government," says Rahim Hussein Musa, assistant dean of the local law school. "But I fear more intra-Shiite fighting down the road because the Sadrists feel they are being targeted and finished off."

Muhammad Saadoun, a young man working at a cellular-phone shop, sums up the power of Sadr's appeal all over the impoverished south: "He's one of us. He's Iraqi, not Iranian. He has lived with us, eaten our food, and shared our misery."

Parties like SIIC and Badr continue to be dogged with the stigma associated with having been based in Iran during Mr. Hussein's rule and the public perception especially in the south of having "returned to Iraq on the back of US tanks."