Iraqi forces backed by the US military have entered the southern city of Amara in an operation aimed at drive outing Mahdi Army fighters, have security officials said.
Large numbers of heavily-armed soldiers took up positions in and around the city on Saturday, ahead of an operation that local police said would target "outlaws".
"Many Iraqi and American troops are everywhere inside and outside Amara waiting for the start of the security operation," a local police official said.
"The operations will target outlaws."
Iraqi army sources told Al-Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, that the government was planning a large operation in Amara to hunt down fighters belonging to the Mahdi Army, a militia led by Muqtada Al-Sadr, a Shia leader.
Iraqi media reports say security in Amara has improved over the past few months but that many fighters are said to be hiding out in the city of around 350,000 people.
The reports say a large number of armed groups sought refuge in Amara after fleeing the main southern port city of Basra where Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister, launched a military assault in March.
Hundreds of people were killed in the Basra crackdown and the ensuing violence that erupted between fighters and Iraqi and US security forces in other areas of the country, especially Baghdad's Sadr City.
The Basra crackdown mainly targeted Mahdi Army fighters.'Iraqi-led operation'
Sergeant Brooke Murphy, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, refused to provide details of the Amara operation, but said it was being led by Iraqi security forces.
Major Tom Holloway, the British military spokesman in Basra, said that "Iraqi security forces continue to conduct operations throughout the British areas of operations".
|Security forces have encircled the city before |
launching the offensive [AFP]
British troops transferred security control of Maysan province of which Amara is the capital, to Iraqi forces in April 2007, but the province, and Amara in particular, has witnessed intense infighting between various Shia factions.
An AFP reporter confirmed large troop movements in the city which lies close to the border with Iran and according to US-led forces, is a major conduit for weapons.
Fears of violence
Military personnel have set up security checkpoints and distributed leaflets urging people to stay indoors and remain calm.
"Stay home for your safety and do not participate [in the fighting]," one leaflet said.
In the city centre, residents rushed to markets to stock up on food and water while hospitals went on alert.
"Everybody is worried. If this operation takes a long time, it may cause lot of casualties," Amel Salman, a local resident said.
"I have bought food items and drinking water in case there is a curfew or fighting."
Mohammed Karim, another resident, said he hoped the operation would cause "no civilian casualties".