Iraqi security forces began to move into the southern city of Amarah on Saturday, and residents braced for the latest government offensive against the Mahdi Army militia loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr.
Amarah, the capital of Maysan province, is one of the remaining bastions of the Sadr movement in Iraq. The cleric’s followers control the governing council and his militia is dominant in the streets.
Western officials believe many hard-core fighters associated with the Mahdi Army fled to the province from Basra after the government waged a campaign against what it called lawlessness in the southern port in late March.
The campaign was seen as a drive by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to assert his authority in the country, which has suffered from sectarian warfare and other violence in the last five years.
A military officer with the U.S.-led coalition, who declined to give his name, confirmed Saturday that Iraqi security operations in Basra province were spreading into Maysan.
An official in Amarah said troops were moving in.
“Now there is Iraqi army deployment in the city and main crossroads,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists. “The main goals of the operation will be to go after the wanted individuals involved in various crimes, disarm the city [and] activate the rule of law.”
Late Saturday, state television channel Al Iraqiya said that Maliki had set a Wednesday deadline for residents to hand in explosives and larger weapons.
Residents said that aircraft had dropped fliers warning them of an imminent military campaign and urged them to stay out of the way.
Spokesman Salah Obeidi said Sadr’s movement had sent a delegation to Amarah to monitor the situation.
On Friday, Sadr appeared to move toward reorganizing the Mahdi Army and shifting much of his movement’s focus toward peaceful social activities, with only select cadres allowed to bear arms.
Meanwhile, a female suicide bomber blew herself up Saturday in front of a popular cafe full of soccer fans in Diyala province as Iraqis celebrated the national team’s 2-1 victory over China in a qualifying match for the World Cup.
The blast killed one person and wounded at least 29 in a town near the province’s capital, Baqubah, police said.
They said 39 people were wounded by celebratory gunfire after the soccer match Saturday.
Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Saad Fakhrildeen contributed to this report.