Iraqi security forces launched a crackdown on Shiite militias in the southern city of Amara on Thursday, the latest drive in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's campaign to restore order to Iraq.
"The operation started this morning," Major-General Tareq Abdul Wahab, the commander of the offensive, told Reuters. He declined to give further details.
Amara, home to 250,000 people, is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Police said they had started raiding houses of suspected militants in Amara's town center and eastern suburbs. They said they met no resistance and residents said they had not yet heard a single gunshot. Al-Sadr has ordered his fighters not to resist.
Rockets and mortars
Iraqi troops and police have been tightening their grip on Amara for days. They have urged militias to hand over medium and heavy weapons, such as rockets and mortars.
Al-Maliki has already sent the Iraqi army, with U.S. support, into Mahdi Army bastions in Baghdad and the southern oil city of Basra, and launched a campaign against al-Qaida Sunni Arab insurgents in the northern city of Mosul.
Scores of Iraqi police and troops patrolled the streets of Amara and U.S. helicopters hovered overhead. Many residents stayed home and some shops were closed.
Traffic jams built up on Amara's outskirts as police searched vehicles entering the city.
Al-Maliki had given those whom he called "outlaws" and "criminals" in Amara until Wednesday to surrender their heavy weapons ahead of the crackdown. A security source has said militants were instead dumping them in rivers, streets or farms.
The Baghdad and Basra operations initially appeared to have backfired, as government forces met fierce resistance from Mahdi Army fighters. Hundreds were killed in Basra and other southern towns and fighting raged in Baghdad for nearly two months. However, government control has been largely restored in both.
Al-Maliki has been criticized in the past for lacking resolve to stabilize Iraq — especially in cracking down on fellow Shiites. But he has gained a measure of respect at home and abroad for the offensives, which have helped reduce violence to the lowest level in more than four years.
The campaigns also underscore the government's desire to take more control of security from the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Baghdad is negotiating a security pact with Washington to lay the legal foundation for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq beyond a U.N. mandate that expires at the end of this year. The talks have proved controversial in Baghdad and Washington.
In a sign recent security gains are fragile, a truck bomb killed 63 people in Baghdad on Tuesday. The U.S. military blamed Shiite militants for the attack.