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Sadrists accuse Iraqi govt of targeting movement
Um Mohammed washes dishes as her children Chalaf, left, and Mohammed play in the waters of a pond in desert area 80 kilometers (50 miles) south east of Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq, on Saturday, June 21 , 2008. Many families in the area are shepherds and make about 2 US dollars per day from selling the sheep's milk . - photo by Associated Press
    BAGHDAD — Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr accused the government Saturday of targeting their political movement as security forces arrested 20 policemen linked to the anti-American cleric.
    The arrests occurred on the third day of a security operation in Amarah, a southern Shiite city and purportedly a hub for smuggling weapons to Iraqi Shiite extremists from Iran.
    Amarah is also a stronghold of al-Sadr’s political movement. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, had promised not to arrest al-Sadr’s followers who were not involved in criminal activity.
    But al-Sadr also commands the country’s biggest Shiite armed group, the Mahdi Army, and the line between legitimate political activity and links to the militia are often blurred.
    During a press conference in Baghdad, Sadrist lawmakers noted that they had agreed to support the Amarah crackdown — Operation Promise of Peace — because the government said it was aimed at restoring law and order.
    But the arrest Thursday of the city’s Sadrist mayor, Rafia Abdul-Jabbar, raised tempers among followers of al-Sadr, who has led a series of armed uprisings against U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces since 2004.
    ‘‘What is happening is that this security operation was transformed from a security offensive to a political offensive,’’ Sadrist lawmaker Ameerah al-Etabi said. ‘‘Security forces have targeted persons related to the Sadrist movement ... without any charge other than belonging to al-Sadr movement.’’
    She criticized government forces for tearing down pictures of the young cleric and his late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, a major Shiite figure believed assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s agents.
    ‘‘We demand of the prime minister that the security operation be more professional and neutral and that it does not target a specific party,’’ al-Etabi said.
    The Amarah operation is the third against Shiite extremists since March after al-Maliki vowed to break the power of the militias, including the Mahdi Army.
    Al-Sadr’s followers believe the crackdowns are aimed at weakening their movement before provincial elections this fall.
    Before those operations, al-Maliki’s critics had accused him of tolerating the militias in return for al-Sadr’s political support.
    Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said that political movements should be allowed to operate ‘‘but there are some requirements, such as (giving up) the militia’s weapons and adhering to the laws of the state.’’
    ‘‘But this regrettably did not happen,’’ he told Al-Arabiya television Saturday. ‘‘The atmosphere is tense (in the south) due to the (provincial) election issue because it will be an important elections that will determine the power of the groups there.’’
    Complaints by the Sadrists appeared to have little influence over the U.S.-backed Iraqi army and police, which continued rounding up suspects and raiding al-Sadr offices around Amarah.
    A police official said 20 policemen were detained Saturday for alleged links to the militia. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t supposed to release the information.
    Iraqi soldiers could be seen hauling down posters of al-Sadr and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. U.S. officials have accused Hezbollah agents of training Iraqi Shiite extremists to fight American and Iraqi troops.
    In an operation Friday, U.S.-backed troops searched the marshy border area between Amarah and the Iranian border, finding roadside bombs the military believes came from Iran — a charge the Iranians deny.
    The Iraqi troops were the first to reach the border area since 2003, said Brig. Gen. Numan Dakhil Jawad, the commander of the Iraqi quick reaction force.
    ‘‘The arrival of our forces here is proof for the gunmen and lawbreakers that the government is present everywhere — even in such a remote area,’’ he told AP Television News.
    Also Saturday, the U.S. military said American soldiers northern city of Mosul detained 25 suspected Sunni insurgents in raids against al-Qaida fighters in northern Iraq.
    In Baqouba, two Shiite brothers kidnapped just weeks after their family returned to a mainly Sunni area were found shot to death Saturday, police said. The U.S. military confirmed the two men’s bodies had been found and said Iraqi police were investigating.
    Ali Zaid Owayid al-Shimmari, 27, and his brother, Ammar, 23, were among thousands of Shiites who fled Baqouba during a wave of sectarian killings there last year but returned after security improved.
    Associated Press writers Hamid Ahmed and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.

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