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Iraq imposes curfew in tense Shi'ite town

Written by: Staff
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BAGHDAD, Oct 23 (Reuters) The Iraqi government imposed a curfew in the tense southern town of Amara today after fierce battles between Shi'ite militias and police last week.

Clashes between Shi'ite militia and Iraqi security forces, mainly fuelled by tribal divisions, killed at least 25 people last week in Amara, which was handed over by British troops to Iraqi security forces two months ago.

''We have imposed the curfew due to the security situation there,'' Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said.

Askari said the Defence Ministry was redeploying the army and the curfew, which will remain in force until further notice, would allow soldiers to control Amara without problems.

Defence Minister Abdul Qadir Jassim told local state channel al-Iraqiya the ministry had received intelligence that militias were planning more attacks on police stations.

The government also said it had ordered its military forces to confront any attempts by armed groups to break the law.

The US-backed, Shi'ite-led government is struggling to exert its authority over Shi'ite militias blamed for reprisal killings and to build a viable police force.

''Lately, unlawful armed operations have increased, which is putting the security and the political stability of the country in danger,'' the statement from the government said in a clear message to the Mehdi Army, a Shi'ite militia loyal to powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

''Everybody should know that orders were given to our armed forces to confront any attempts at violating the law, whoever is the source.'' Amara, a town of around 250,000 people, is the provincial capital of Maysan province, home of the Marsh Arabs persecuted by former President Saddam Hussein. British forces plan to hand full control of Maysan to Iraqis in the coming months.

MORE ATTACKS PLANNED British military spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge said there were around 3,000 Iraqi soldiers in Amara to patrol the streets. British forces have a 600-strong contingent on standby in the outskirts of the town.

''The situation is very tense ... violence could erupt at any time,'' he said.

The clashes in the Shi'ite town have exposed a power struggle in the ruling Shi'ite coalition that threatens to further complicate US efforts in Iraq.

Under mounting US pressure, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has pledged to disband militias including the Mehdi Army.

But Maliki, a Shi'ite, is politically dependent on parties with ties to the militias. Sadr has a large block in parliament which provides key support to Maliki's coalition and moving against him could weaken Maliki's five-month-old government.

Maliki last week met Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to enlist their support in curbing sectarian violence.

REUTERS AB RAI2131

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