AMARA, Iraq (AFP) — Five aides of Iraq's hardline Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr were detained overnight in a crackdown on militiamen in the southern oil region of Maysan, sparking fresh tension Friday between Baghdad and supporters of the cleric.
"Five officials from the provincial council who represent the Sadr movement have been arrested for aiding the militia," Maysan police spokesman Mehdi al-Asadi told AFP.
He said four policemen were also arrested in the operation which was launched on Thursday in Maysan and its capital of Amara.
Officials had on Thursday announced that the mayor of Amara, Rafa Abdul Jabbar, also a member of the Sadr movement, and 16 wanted suspects were arrested in the first hours of Operation Basha'ar al-Salam (Promise of Peace).
The operation which was continuing Friday involves Iraqi police and soldiers, backed by US troops, sweeping house to house through the city of Amara to hunt militiamen and illegal weapons.
US commanders say Maysan has become a major centre for arms smuggling into Iraq from overwhelmingly Shiite Iran just over the border.
Southern Iraq is the source of the majority of the country's oil output and officials say the crackdown on militias is aimed at ending the widespread smuggling of crude from which many of them derive their funding.
But some analysts say the move is also an attempt by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Shiite ally, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, to weaken their rivals in the Sadr movement ahead of provincial elections due in October.
The Sadrists said Friday the crackdown had become a witch hunt.
"All over Iraq -- Basra, and Sadr city in Baghdad -- the government has said the same thing: that Sadr and his Mahdi Army are not targets," the organisation chief for the Sadr movement in Amara told AFP by telephone.
"But after those operations started they changed the colour of their feathers and started going after followers of Sadr and his Mahdi Army," he said after abruptly cancelling a planned meeting with an AFP correspondent in the city.
"Right now I don't know if I will be able to save my own life," he said, adding that he was being forced to move from one safe house to another as the army closed in on him.
Huge weapons caches that included mortars, anti-personal mines and machine guns have been found dumped in fields, rivers and cemeteries, but the Sadr official said they did not belong to his group.
"These weapons are the garbage of Iraqi army during Saddam Hussein period," he insisted.
Amara, a city of 350,000 people, has huge numbers of people living in abject poverty and has long served as a key centre for support of Sadr's anti-US stance and conservative Islamic politics.
But Sadr's fighters are also blamed by some citizens and Iraqi political parties for stoking inter-sectarian violence in Shiite regions.
Baghdad and Basra, which both have large Shiite populations, saw deadly street fighting between the security forces and Sadr's men earlier this year before a truce was declared on May 10.
Amara has so far avoided this kind of conflict although residents here have voiced fears that the military action could renew violence in the city.
"I think that the government's attempts to establish security are good and it should help to bring more stability. But I'm worried too that more violence could follow," said one 39-year-old resident operating a tea shop.
"When Sadr was in control here I never had to carry identification, now I have to carry it," he said.
Many of Sadr's men are thought to have escaped across the border to Iran, but their whereabouts was still unclear amid conflicting reports over whether they had gone into hiding or fled the city.
A top Iraqi commander in Amara said on Thursday the military drive was designed with amnesty in mind.
"The government wants to forgive those who were pulled in by the violent groups as long as they start being good citizens, so the government wants to give them a chance," he said.
"But those trying to operate outside the law, whether Sunni, Shiite or any other religious group we're going to use the law against them."
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