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.
In the capital, the U.S. military reported that a soldier was listed as missing Monday night and that American and Iraqi forces were scouring the area where he was last seen. The missing soldier is an Army translator, and the initial report is that he may have been abducted, said a military official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information was not cleared for release.
“Coalition and Iraqi Security forces immediately responded to attempt to locate the soldier. The search is ongoing,” the military said in a statement that gave no other details.
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.
Al-Maliki cautions against violence
The Iraqi prime minister warned the country against lawlessness and said his military would take unspecified action to stop the mounting bloodshed.
“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,” Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement.
“The Iraqi government also calls in particular on the people of Maysan province (home to Amarah) to exercise caution and care in the face of attempts to drag the people of this unified nation into fighting and strife,” the Shiite prime minister said.
Al-Maliki has faced growing pressure from allies in Washington and London to rein in Shiite militias and other violent factions, and his Monday statement appeared to be a reaction.
U.S.: 'Large to-do list'
The White House said Monday that the fledgling Iraqi government must step up and take more responsibility for the country’s security.
But President Bush’s spokesman, Tony Snow, discounted a newspaper report saying the head of the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador were working on a plan that — for the first time — would set a specific timetable for disarming militias and meeting other political and economic goals.
“There is still a very large to-do list before Iraq is in a position to sustain, government and defend itself,” Snow said.
“Are we issuing ultimatums? No,” he added.
But with the army apparently on the sidelines and unwilling to stop the bloodshed in Amarah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, it was unclear what effect the statement would have there or elsewhere in the country.
In Amarah, gunmen dragged police Lt. Sarmad Majid al-Shatti from his home before dawn, then dumped his bullet-riddled body at a farm on the city’s outskirts, said Ali Chaloub of Sadr General Hospital. Another policeman, Lt. Alaa al-Kabi was shot to death outside his home, Chaloub said.
At about the same time, provincial policemen Hamid Majeed and Hassan Abdullah were kidnapped from their homes, and their bodies were later found dumped outside the city, Chaloub said.
Badr fighters took revenge, killing and beheading the teenage brother of the local Mahdi Army commander. The Mahdi commander was killed Thursday, setting in motion the Amarah violence.
Sunnis ignore holiday
With sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites also on the rise, Sunnis in Baghdad largely ignored public celebrations of the Eid al-Fitr feast marking the end of the Ramadan month of fasting. They said they feared new attacks.
A car bomb in an eastern district of the capital killed at least three people.
A member of the international force training Iraqi policemen was killed in a roadside bombing in eastern Baghdad on Sunday, the military said.
The car bomb on Baghdad’s Palestine street had targeted a police patrol, but its' victims, including 13 injured, were pedestrians, police Lt. Thair Mahmod said.
U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials have hoped for a reduction of violence after Ramadan.
Deadly month for Iraqis
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 Sunday, October 22, at least 941 Iraqis have been killed in war-related violence, an average of 43 every 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.
Iraq’s majority Shiites will celebrate the three-day Eid al-Fitr Tuesday or Wednesday, which means Monday to them could be the last day of the fast when devout Muslims refrain from food, water, sex and smoking from dawn to dusk.
Despite an increased police and army presence on the streets, many Baghdad Sunnis said they would rather stay home than risk falling victim to car bombs or Shiite death squads.
“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.
He said he found fewer worshippers than last year when he went to a local mosque to perform the early morning prayers marking Eid al-Fitr.
“We were 50 to 60 in the mosque,” Aziz lamented. “Last year, there were about 400.”