They came at dawn, thousands of Iraqi troops and U.S. special forces on a mission to reclaim a lawless city from the militias who ran it.
By the end of the day, al-Amarah was under Iraqi government control — without a shot being fired.
The city had been taken over by Muqtada Al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army two years ago after British troops handed it to an ill-prepared Iraqi Army. On Thursday, the city's streets were crawling with Iraqi security forces. Soldiers searched houses as police manned checkpoints and Soviet-era tanks guarded bridges over the Tigris River.
The flood of troops, who had moved into position outside the city a week ago, had encountered no resistance as they moved in. The leaders of the Shia militias that once ruled as crime bosses and warlords were either gone or in hiding. Even the police chief fled a week ago, fearing arrest for his affiliation to the al-Mahdi Army, while the mayor, a member of the Sadrist movement, was arrested.
Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister, has insisted that his large-scale operations in the south are not targeting the Sadrist movement, which has been increasingly weakened by internal divisions, its brutal reputation for murder and extortion and a more confident Iraqi military.
Al-Sadr, the fundamentalist Shia cleric who heads the al-Mahdi Army and the Sadrist political movement, ordered his men not to resist the government forces, and a senior member of his parliamentary block expressed grudging support.
Locals said that militiamen had been spotted throwing their weapons into the Tigris or trying to hide them along the lush river banks. One man said that he saw two women digging up a stash hidden by a fighter and taking them into a weapons collection point in the hope of a reward.