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Mahdi Militia Temporarily Seizes Control of Iraqi City

Shiite militias raided police stations in the southern Iraqi city of Amarah Friday, briefly taking control before mediators negotiated a truce. A London Times reporter in Baghdad provides an update on the situation in Iraq.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    That escalating violence in southern Iraq. Jeffrey Brown spoke by telephone earlier today with James Hider of the London Times in Baghdad.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    James, the latest report we had was that Mahdi Army militiamen had seized control of Amarah and then withdrawn. Can you add to that, in terms of the immediate situation, whether fighting continues, and who's in control of the city now?

  • JAMES HIDER, The London Times:

    The fighting does appeared to have calmed down this evening. The Iraqi government has sent in about 600 extra soldiers and policemen to back up the police who fled their police stations earlier in the day.

    The result seems to be partly because Muqtada al-Sadr has sent some envoys asking his people to restrain themselves and to calm the situation down. Also, the government in Baghdad sent a ministerial-level team to negotiate a cease-fire.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Set the scene a little bit for us; tell us about this town. This is a city that British forces left only two months ago. Why did they leave? And what's happened there since?

  • JAMES HIDER:

    Well, the British left their camp, called Abu Naji, which was in the center of Amarah, in August. They said that they were repositioning to go along the Iranian border and have desert patrols along the border to stop weapons smugglers coming across from Iran.

    In fact, they were being mortared heavily every day. I spoke to a British soldier who said that basically their camp was like a bull's eye in the middle of Amarah, and they were being mortared from a distance of nine or ten kilometers.

    So they were taking constant fire for a very long period of time. British officers have in the past compared this to the most sustained fire that British forces have received since the Korean War, so they've pulled out. They're now down on the Iranian border patrolling the desert.

    But that was claimed as a victory by the Mahdi Army militia, who had been there firing these mortars, and that has certainly encouraged the activities of the militias in the area. When the British pulled out of their camp, the camp was basically stripped by looters. And the Iraqi forces who had moved in did nothing to prevent them.

    And this has all emboldened the militias to try their hand, and then this latest dispute has actually triggered a full-out battle.

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