The Iraqi army eventually regained control of the city.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Black-uniformed, hooded gunmen loyal to an anti-American Shiite cleric briefly seized the major southern city of Amarah on Friday in an audacious drive against local security forces, largely controlled by Iraq's other main Shiite militia.
Twenty-five 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. Amarah is 30 miles from the border with Iran, where the Shiite theocracy is said to be funding, arming and training both rival militias.
The Amarah showdown between the two virtual private armies highlighted the potential for an all-out conflict between them and their political sponsors, both with large blocs in parliament and important to the survival of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's shaky four-month-old government.
It also underlined the deep underlying rift that exists between the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's faction, whose forces took Amarah on Friday, and that of the more traditional but powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, headed by key power broker Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who spent decades in Iranian exile during Saddam Hussein's rule.
The U.S. exit strategy depends on returning military and political control to the Iraqi government, but outbreaks of civil conflict raise doubts about how long that will take and add urgency to a policy review under way among Bush administration political and military officials.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that despite the violence in Amarah, it was not a strategic error for the British to turn over control of the city to the Iraqis in August.
"The biggest mistake would be to not pass things over to the Iraqis, create a dependency on their part, instead of developing strength and capacity and competence," Rumsfeld said.
The clashes marred the Muslim day of prayer for the second Friday in a row in cities where American and British forces had only recently ceded military control to Iraqi security forces and the army. More than 100 people were slain in Balad this past week, most of them by Shiite deaths squads drawn largely from al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
The Mahdi Army held Amarah for several hours in an embarrassingly strong showing against the local police and security forces, controlled by the Badr Brigade militia loyal to SCIRI, the country's dominant political force with deep and historic links to Iran.
Deaths of 34
Elsewhere in Iraq on Friday, police reported the deaths of 34 people, including 10 killed in mortar attacks overnight in Balad, an hour north of the capital, and a family of nine Shiites shot to death when gunmen burst into their home in Aziziyah, 35 miles southeast of Baghdad. A U.S. soldier was killed when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb southwest of the capital.
Until recently, Baghdad had been the focus of sectarian and Sunni insurgent killers, prompting the United States to launch a drive in August to rid the capital of the gunmen and torturers. An additional 12,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces were put on the streets for the task.
But two months into the operation, the U.S. combat death toll in October alone stood at 75 -- likely to be the highest for any month in nearly two years. Attacks on Americans jumped by 22 percent in the first three weeks of the holy month of Ramadan, when compared to the three previous weeks. The U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said the bid to cleanse the capital was failing and needs to be refocused.
Against that background, the Amarah turmoil and killings looked more ominous, especially as it marked one of the first serious armed confrontations among Shiites. Most recent killings in Iraq involved tit-for-tat attacks between Shiites and Sunni Arabs, the minority sect in Iraq that dominated the country until Saddam's ouster.
Amarah is a major population center in the resource-rich yet impoverished south and a traditional center of Shiite defiance to successive Iraqi regimes. Its marshlands were drained by Saddam during the 1990s in reprisal for the city's role in the Shiite uprising after the Gulf War. Saddam ordered the killing of tens of thousands of Shiites in retribution.
The British military spokesman in Basra, headquarters for Britain's 7,200 soldiers in Iraq, sought to play down the seriousness of Friday's fighting, noting that 600 Iraqi soldiers were able to force Mahdi Army fighters off the streets, arrange a truce and return quiet to the city by Friday afternoon. Estimates of the number of Mahdi Army fighters ranged between 200 and 800.
"It's like when you take the training wheels off a bike. There are some wobbles. This was a pretty big wobble, but it's still moving in the right direction," said spokesman Maj. Charlie Burbridge.
"They [Iraqi security forces] have applied a solution, and at the moment it's holding," he said. "At the moment, it's tense but calm."
Five-hundred British soldiers were on standby if the government called for help. Burbridge said 25 gunmen and police were killed, adding that a British drone overhead the city recorded the events all day.
TV news scene
At the height of the fighting Friday, AP Television News video showed thick black smoke billowing from behind barricades at a police station, much of it from vehicles set on fire inside the compound. Hooded gunmen roamed the streets with Kalashnikov automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Most of the streets were deserted except for the gunmen.
The militiamen later withdrew from their positions and lifted their siege under a truce brokered by an al-Sadr envoy as the Iraqi forces entered the city.
The fighting came just days after al-Maliki met with al-Sadr at the cleric's Najaf headquarters to enlist support for capping sectarian violence and to bolster his government, which is increasingly at odds with the United States for not disbanding the militias, among other issues.
The timing of the violence may have indicated al-Sadr and other Mahdi Army commanders did not have full control over individual units, lending weight to speculation that Shiite gunmen were splitting off from the main organization to pursue their own agendas. The U.S. military said it counts 23 separate militias in Baghdad alone.
The Amarah fighting was believed to have begun over the killing Thursday of Qassim al-Tamimi, the provincial head of police intelligence and a leading member of the Badr Brigade militia.
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