IMAGE: Destroyed police station in Amarah
Nabil Al-jurani  /  AP
An Iraqi soldier stands guard Saturday outside an Amarah police station that was destroyed in fighting the previous day.
updated 10/21/2006 9:41:18 AM ET 2006-10-21T13:41:18

Shops and government offices reopened and army units manned checkpoints Saturday around a southern Iraqi city where gunmen loyal to an anti-American Shiite cleric briefly seized control in a bold confrontation with local security forces.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army held Amarah for several hours in an embarrassingly strong showing against security forces largely controlled by Iraq’s other main Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said Saturday that it had killed a senior member of al-Qaida in Iraq, although they offered few details and did not name the fighter.

Seven other suspected insurgents were slain in the U.S. raid in Ramadi. The American military said the slain al-Qaida in Iraq fighter had been responsible for providing weapons and financing to foreign fighters.

Bloody clashes
In Amarah, 25 gunmen and police died in gunbattles before the Iraqi army moved in to retake the city of 750,000 people at the head of Iraq’s famous marshlands where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers draw close together.

The fighting came as Sunni insurgents staged audacious military-style parades in a pair of cities west of Baghdad, advertising their defiance of U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies.

British forces who had turned over control of Amarah in August said they had 500 soldiers on standby Saturday if the government called for help. The day before the Iraqi military had sent about 600 troops to retake the city.

'We were terrified'
On Saturday, the situation appeared relatively calm, and residents began to emerge.

Haider Ali Abdullah, 35, said he wasted no time in reopening his tiny restaurant after hearing that fighting had ended.

“We were terrified,” Abdullah said by phone. “The last two days had a major effect on our lives since we depend on this business to make a living.”

Abdullah blamed both the local authorities and militiamen for allowing the situation to deteriorate.

Fears of an all-out conflict
The Amarah showdown between the two virtual private armies highlighted the potential for an all-out conflict between the factions, both with large blocs in parliament that are important to the survival of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s shaky 4-month-old government.

Video: Limited options Amarah lies just 30 miles from the border with Iran, where the Shiite theocracy is reputed to be funding, arming and training both factions.

With the death toll rising among U.S. forces in the country, a policy review is under way among Bush administration political and military officials. Polls ahead of congressional elections next month show shrinking support for the war and leading Republicans have urged for changes in the administration’s approach to Iraq.

The U.S. combat death toll in October alone stood at 75 — likely to be the highest for any month in nearly two years. Friday casualties included a U.S. soldier and a Salvadoran Army captain whose vehicles were hit by explosive devices in separate attacks south of Baghdad.

Violence scattered around Iraq
In other violence, clashes Friday between Shiite and Sunni tribes just south of Baghdad killed four people, said Lt. Mohamed Al-Shemeri of the police force in the city of Kut.

Two people were killed when a car bomb blew up near the Sarafiyah bridge across the Tigris river in northern Baghdad, police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq said. The bomb apparently missed its intended target, an Iraqi police patrol.

The bodies of four electric company workers kidnapped Friday from the Hafriyah area, 25 miles south of Baghdad, were turned in to the morgue in Kut, said morgue official Hadi Al-Atabi.

In Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, local groups rallied in support of recent efforts to reconcile Shiite and Sunni groups sponsored by the Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Religious leaders met in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, this week and issued a series of edicts forbidding violence between Iraq’s two Muslim sects.

Differences between the two sides deepened when parliament adopted a Shiite-backed law this week allowing provinces in the Shiite and oil-rich south to establish an autonomous region like the Kurdish one in the north.

Sunni Arabs and some Shiites oppose the law, arguing that federalism would lead to the eventual breakup of Iraq.

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