BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces met little resistance Thursday on Day 1 of the government's crackdown in the southern city of Amarah as they sought to disarm gunmen loyal to the militant Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
Iraqi defense officials said there were no casualties or gun battles as military and national police units easily spread through northern Amarah, a mostly Shiite oil and agricultural city that borders Iran and for decades has served as a smuggling hub.
The Iraqi military announced the arrests Thursday of 17 suspected militants, including Rafia Abdul Jabbar, the region's acting deputy governor who is also the top city administrator in Amarah.
"The city is quiet even though the operation has started, and I haven't heard a gun-shot or the sound of a plane," said Faiq Hanoun, 55, an Amarah resident. "Life is going on in the normal fashion. Markets are open and movement in and out of the city hasn't stopped."
Just months ago, such a campaign almost certainly would have met fierce opposition from the Sadr followers who control just about every aspect of life in Amarah, where widespread poverty has made it fertile recruiting ground. However, unlike recent, more violent operations in the nearby city of Basra or in the Baghdad district of Sadr City, the path to Amarah had been smoothed beforehand by negotiations and a four-day grace period in which militants were told to surrender their weapons or face arrest.
Neither side could have afforded another protracted, bloody battle. The weakened and fragmented Sadr movement needs time to regroup, while the Iraqi government seeks to bolster its image as a unifying force ahead of the fall provincial elections.
Still, some Amarah residents warned there could be clashes if the operation moves into the area's famous marshes, which long have served as the perfect hideout for fugitives, smugglers and political dissidents. Shiite opposition forces often sought refuge in the tall reeds during the reign of the late dictator Saddam Hussein. Many Mahdi Army suspects are believed to have slipped into the marshes ahead of the Amarah operation.
"For sure, the operations will expand into the marshes because there are important targets there," said Abdel Kareem Khalaf, spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry.
U.S. and British troops are playing an advisory role and providing air cover for the Iraqi-led operation dubbed "Good Tidings and Peace." Locals said coalition helicopters were the only visible sign of foreign involvement in the raids. They added that weapons presumably belonging to the Mahdi Army were left abandoned in canals, cemeteries and other deserted areas.
Raed Huzi, an English teacher in Amarah, said he was torn over whether to leave his wife and children home alone and report to class to conduct final exams for his students. His neighborhood was among the first to be cordoned off and searched by the Iraqi forces Thursday.
"I made up my mind that the students should have their examinations because their futures depend on teachers like me making sure the exams proceed," Huzi said. "Luckily, things passed well. Only one soldier entered my house and he asked at the gate whether we have a gun or not. My wife told him that we don't have any guns at home and the soldier searched one room and left."
Top aides to Sadr had pledged to comply with the government searches as long as there weren't arbitrary arrests or human rights violations. The government, in turn, had assured senior Sadrist officials that security forces would respect the rights and property of residents and would refrain from arresting men solely because of Mahdi Army membership; only fighters suspected of serious crimes face detention.
On Wednesday, 12 Amarah policemen were arrested on charges that they stashed weapons and explosives inside a jail, according to the Maysan province's police command. But the Iraqi government appears to be adopting a carrot-and-stick approach in dealing with Sadr's followers. Iraqi officials met with Amarah's tribal leaders Thursday morning in hopes of recruiting some 3,000 local men for the national security forces, said Mohamed Jabbar of the provincial council.
Sadr's aides and Amarah residents reported only minor violations of the understanding between the government and the Sadrists. Adnan al Silawi, the head of the Sadr office in Amarah, said Iraqi security forces manhandled some locals and cursed the Sadr movement during the searches. Iraqi leaders said they would investigate the claims and make clear that such conduct was unacceptable. Silawi added that one of the Sadr office's employees, Haider Owdeh, was detained Thursday.
(Allam reported from Baghdad, McClatchy special correspondent Basri from Amarah. Special correspondents Hussein Kadhim and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this article from Baghdad.)