BAGHDAD, Iraq—Hundreds of members of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's militia seized control of three police stations in a southern Iraqi city Friday, in another sign that Iraqi government forces are unable or unwilling to subdue rogue elements.
As many 20 people were killed and another 90 were injured.
Amara residents said the attack was the latest battle in a long fight for control of the city among government forces, Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, which is backed by a rival Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Sadr's forces and the Badr Organization receive support from Iran.
Iraqi and British officials said the city was back under control by the end of the day, but many remain worried that sectarian violence is escalating across the country as Shiite militias battle government forces, Sunni Muslim fighters and sometimes one another.
Sadrists appear to have gained considerable influence in several cities in Iraq's largely Shiite south, where they attacked government forces earlier this month in the city of Diwaniyah.
Earlier this week, Shiites and Sunnis killed each other in retaliatory violence around the northern city of Balad, a Shiite community surrounded by Sunni towns. U.S. officials, who'd handed over control of Balad to Iraqi forces last April, had to intervene to stop the violence.
Likewise, British officials had returned control of Amara—the capital of Misan province, which borders Iran—to Iraqi forces in August. They, too, had to help quell an outbreak of fighting Friday.
It's unclear how much control Sadr has over some members of his militia, which has expanded and splintered since he founded it in 2003. During Friday's fighting, some militiamen appeared to defy the firebrand cleric's orders for calm.
"I am asking all to keep quiet and not to be dragged (into) the occupation schemes, which aim to escalate strife," Sadr said in a statement. "Anybody who does not obey this order should consider himself disavowed from the Mahdi Army and bear responsibility for what he did."
The killing Wednesday of the head of police intelligence in Amara spurred a full-scale battle. Police charged that Sadrists killed Lt. Ali al Tamami, a member of the Badr Organization. The next day, his family captured the brother of a local Mahdi Army leader, charging that he was responsible for Tamimi's murder, said Abdul Mahdi Omar, a member of the provincial council.
The Mahdi Army said it would attack if police didn't release the captive by 2 p.m. Friday. When he wasn't freed, hundreds of gunmen stormed the city's two police stations and its major crimes unit, setting them ablaze and destroying the buildings.
"All the police stations in the city and the suburbs and the outskirts have fallen into the Sadrists' hands," Wahid Hammed, 38, a worker in Amara, said in a midday interview with McClatchy Newspapers. "The Sadrists control the city."
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki sent a delegation to the city to try to calm tensions, and it was negotiating a peace deal along with tribal leaders. After they began meeting and Sadr issued a statement, the situation began to calm down, residents said. But a Mahdi Army Web site said militiamen had to defy Sadr's orders briefly to reclaim control of their Amara office from the police.
In other news, U.S. officials announced that a soldier was killed Friday by a homemade bomb in southern Baghdad, bringing the monthly death toll for the American military in Iraq to at least 74. If the trend continues, October could be the deadliest month for the U.S. since November 2004, when American forces launched an offensive in the mostly Sunni western city of Fallujah.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.