BAGHDAD, Iraq – The prime minister on Monday announced a military crackdown to tame the country's staggering armed violence, taking special aim at continuing lawlessness in the southern city of Amarah, where police have fled the streets as Mahdi Army gunmen hunt them down in a brutal Shiite-on-Shiite settling of scores.
The spread of vendetta-style killings among Shiites in their southern heartland has opened a new and ominous front as American forces were already struggling to control insurgent and sectarian bloodshed to the north — especially in Baghdad.
Hoping to find a political solution, the Bush administration has asked the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to issue an unconditional amnesty to Sunni Muslim insurgents, prominent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman told the Associated Press. He is a confidante of Jalal Talabani, the country's president.
He and Hassan al-Seneid, a member of parliament close to al-Maliki, also told AP that U.S. officials were engaged in ongoing talks with members of the insurgency, including members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party, to seek an end to the fighting that has plagued American forces in Baghdad, its environs and sprawling Anbar province in the west of the country.
Members of al-Qaida in Iraq are not included in either the talks or the U.S. amnesty proposal, which would require Iraqi government approval and is by no means certain since it is controlled by Shiites.
President George W. Bush held a series of meetings over the weekend with top U.S. military and security officials to address the spiraling violence in Iraq, where 87 U.S. service members have been killed in October, the most for any month since November 2004. The military announced four new U.S. deaths — a Marine and three soldiers — were announced Monday.
Although details of the White House meetings were vague, the administration is feeling the building displeasure of Americans as the war drags on and U.S. casualties mount. And the fighting weighs heavy on the prospects of Republican candidates in midterm elections two weeks hence.
Despite new tactics to curb the bloodshed, U.S. and British attempts to disengage in Iraq by handing control of territory to the Iraqi army has only served to spread violence in some places.
The conflict in Amarah, for example, began a month after British forces withdrew and 25 police and Mahdi Army fighters were killed late last week when the militia stormed into the city seeking revenge for the killing of its commander in the region.
Despite a public call to end the violence from their spiritual leader, the radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army re-emerged Monday after two days of relative calm and killed four more Badr Brigades-aligned policemen, dragging them out of their houses and dumping their bodies elsewhere. For their part, Badr Brigades fighters beheaded the kidnapped nephew of the slain Mahdi commander.
Nevertheless, officials at Britain's Ministry of Defense said Monday after meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair that Maysan province, where Amarah is capital, was expected to be handed over to Iraqi authorities either next month or early next year.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, in London for talks with Blair, declined to confirm the plan, but said he expected significant developments in the next year.
"We understand this cannot be an open-ended commitment by the international community, at the end of the day it is up to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to establish security," Saleh told reporters.
The al-Maliki statement Monday, while notable for its timing, appeared toothless, especially given that his army was standing aside in Amarah and has fallen short of delivering troops requested by the Americans for the ongoing security crackdown in Baghdad.
"The Iraqi government hereby warns all groups with illegal weapons to refrain from any armed activities that undermines public security. Let everyone be informed that orders have been issued to the armed forces to stop any transgression against state power and to confront any illegal attempt regardless of its source," al-Maliki wrote in his decree.
"The Iraqi government also calls in particular on the people of Maysan province to exercise caution and care in the face of attempts to drag the people of one nation into fighting and strife," he said.
In Baghdad, public festivities were rare to mark the Sunni start of Eid al-Fitr, the feasting days at the end of the Ramadam month of fasting. Several bombings in the city a day earlier targeted people shopping for holiday food and gifts.
Concerned over continuing attacks, police banned motorbikes from the city streets after reports that a number of planned bombings using the two-wheeled vehicles.
Fears of attacks kept Sunnis indoors, away from traditional visits to family and friends and strolls in the city streets and parks.
"We are telephoning friends and relatives or sending text messages to wish them a happy holiday," said Nadhim Aziz, a math teacher from the city's mixed district of New Baghdad.
He said he found fewer worshippers than last year when he went to a local mosque for early morning prayers at the start of the holiday.
"We were 50 to 60 in the mosque. Last year, there were about 400," Aziz said.
Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, declared Tuesday would mark the start of the festivities for Shiites.
While American deaths in October have outstripped figures for all months of the war but two, the toll for Iraqis has reached staggering proportions.
According to an Associated Press count, October is on track to be the deadliest month for Iraqis since the AP began tracking deaths in April 2005. Through Monday, at least 961 Iraqis have been killed in war-related violence, an average of more than 41 each day.
That compares to an average daily death toll of about 27 since April 2005. The AP count includes civilians, government officials and police and security forces, and is considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported. The United Nations has said 100 Iraqis are being killed each day.