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Originally published June 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 16, 2008 at 12:59 AM

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Iraq homes in on Mahdi stronghold

In an operation with military and political objectives, the Iraqi army continued to assemble troops in and around the southern city of Amara...

The New York Times

BAGHDAD — In an operation with military and political objectives, the Iraqi army continued to assemble troops in and around the southern city of Amara on Sunday.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki offered an amnesty to extremists who were willing to surrender, and he also offered to buy back heavy weapons from militia fighters. Similar offers in the past few months have presaged military operations against Shiite or Sunni militias in Basra, the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.

As in Basra and Sadr City, Amara is dominated by rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army. Al-Maliki's government has appeared eager to crush at least the armed wing of al-Sadr's movement.

With provincial elections scheduled for the fall, both the government and al-Sadr also appeared to be maneuvering for political advantage.

On Friday, al-Sadr announced that he was separating the political and military wings of his movement, apparently in anticipation of a proposed law, expected to be approved this month, that would outlaw parties or movements with an armed wing from participating in the provincial elections.

On Sunday, members of Shiite Muslim cleric al-Sadr's political bloc announced the group would not compete as a party in coming local elections but would endorse candidates.

The endorsements "will not be for Sadrists alone, but for individuals, chieftains, people with popularity and talents to serve and offer public services to the people," said Sadrist Parliament member Haidar Fakrildeen. "We will support them; we will advise the people to vote for them."

Outside observers described al-Sadr as playing his cards carefully in what could be the start of a major drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq this autumn.

"His strategy is not to confront the Americans but to wait out their departure, only to emerge stronger to face his rivals," said Joost Hiltermann, an expert on Iraq with the International Crisis Group think tank.

Al-Maliki also seems to have significant political calculations in apparently selecting Amara as the site of the next military operation.

With Iraqi soldiers setting up checkpoints and preparing to take control of the city, al-Maliki could be hoping to weaken, at least temporarily, the political branch of al-Sadr's movement and solidify his own hold by appearing decisive and in control.

Amara is the capital of Maysan, the only province in Iraq where the local government is run by politicians aligned with al-Sadr.

Information from Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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