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Iraqi Troops Mass for Assault in South

ANDREW E. KRAMER, NYTimes

June 14, 2008

BAGHDAD Ś Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki massed Iraqi troops on Saturday near Amara, a city controlled by forces loyal to the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Residents of Amara, which is in a tribal region in the southeastern corner of Iraq, awoke Saturday to helicopters thudding overhead, dropping leaflets that cautioned them to remain indoors and to cooperate with Iraqi soldiers who would be arriving shortly.

The city is the capital of Maysan Province, the only province in Iraq where the local government is dominated by loyalists to Mr. Sadr, a Shiite rival to Mr. Maliki.

If a assault follows, as anticipated, it will be the fourth time this spring that Mr. Maliki has sent troops into a city dominated by Shiite or Sunni militias. These initiatives have boosted Mr. Malikiĺs popularity and power.

It was uncertain when the operation in Amara would begin, but an Iraqi general said it would unfold along similar lines to the first of the assaults, against Shiite militias in the nearby city of Basra.

That operation began with checkpoints sealing exits from the city. Iraqi soldiers then entered Basra, relying on air support from the American military and small teams of American advisers.

Amara, with a population of about 350,000 people, is smaller than the sites of the three previous operations: Basra, the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad and Mosul.

Amara is tactically important as a suspected conduit for weapons smuggled across marshlands along the border with Iran.

The Iraqi soldiers assembled at an airport six miles northeast of Amara and at a local stadium, a local police official said.

In the early months after the United States invaded Iraq, rival militant groups engaged in frequent gun battles in Amara, sometimes overrunning government buildings. The militias seized control of the city, over which the central government in Baghdad had limited control.

Amara was also the nominal seat of authority for popularly elected members of Mr. Sadrĺs political party.

The leaflets that were dropped on the city on Saturday told residents that Iraqi security forces were about to begin an operation. "Stay at home and do not leave or interfere," the leaflets said. American helicopters also dropped pictures of wanted militants.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry posted a notice on its Web site that Iraqi forces would begin an operation called "Imposing Law."

A police official said soldiers would search house to house for weapons. He said the soldiers would also evacuate government buildings, where elected members of the Sadr movement are presumed to work.

Gen. Hameed Nabeel, the commander of the Iraqi Army First Brigade, which is garrisoned in Maysan Province, said in an interview that the purpose of the operation was to serve court-issued arrest warrants. He said soldiers would try to detain militants who had fled north to Amara from the earlier fighting in Basra.

"This operation will be just like the operations in Basra and Mosul," General Nabeel said.

On Friday, Mr. Sadr announced the formation of a new, armed wing of his Mahdi Army movement.

In a statement read during Friday prayers, Mr. Sadr said the new group would target only American forces and would not engage the Iraqi Army.


:: Article nr. 44865 sent on 14-jun-2008 22:48 ECT

www.uruknet.info?p=44865

Link: www.nytimes.com/2008/06/15/world/middleeast/15iraq.html?ref=world&pagewanted=pri
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