Baghdad's Grasp on Iraq's South

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Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

A woman pleads with Iraqi police in Amara after they arrest her son during a raid

It's 6 p.m. on Thursday and Brigadier General Saad Ali Harbia's phone rings — not his regular mobile, but the new hotline that the Iraqi police force in Amara, 185 miles southeast of Baghdad, has set up to receive tips that could lead to arrests. The tip comes from a man who says he knows about a financier of Mahdi Army commanders in the region. Harbia's assistant takes down the information and says they will follow up on it.

In Amara, the capital of Iraq's unruly Maysan province — long a smuggling hub for weapons and drugs on Iraq's border with Iran — Iraqi forces are waging a crackdown on the Mahdi Army, led by popular radical Shi'ite cleric and opposition leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched the campaign last month under the banner of "imposing the law" and wresting control away from militias operating "outside the law." Similar campaigns in Basra, the chaotic port 100 miles away, and Sadr City, the huge Baghdad slum, initially met fierce resistance from al-Sadr's followers, but the cleric ordered his fighters to stand down in the Amara operation, allowing it to proceed peacefully. "The previous operation that happened in Basra really hurt the fighters," Harbia says. "Now they prefer to flee rather than to resist."

Representatives of the Sadrist movement in Baghdad have complained that their members are being targeted in the operation for political reasons. But the government says its arrests are unbiased and are warranted by criminal activity. The extent to which either claim is accurate is difficult to determine. But regardless of the reason, one thing is clear among Amara's newly fortified police force: the Mahdi Army is being hunted.

The results of that hot pursuit will help determine whether al-Maliki's military and police forces are capable of reinforcing the central government's tenuous hold on the oil-rich regions south of Baghdad — even as the Prime Minister discusses the possibility of a timetable for American troop withdrawal as part of a new security agreement with the U.S. More immediately (and concretely), the efficacy of Iraqi government forces is critical to the outcome of provincial elections in October.

On Thursday evening last week, Harbia's police force headed out in a convoy of 11 trucks to inspect the city's checkpoints. At one point the convoy stopped outside a Mahdi Army safe house, which — as a member of Harbia's forces informed him through the window — had just been raided. Another officer said the Mahdi Army even occupied one of the old police buildings until they were pushed out last month. "There are criminals and killers [in Amara] and no one arrested them before. But with this operation, we have court permission to do so," Harbia said as he waved to bystanders from the car window.

An imposing figure with a mustache to match, Harbia has been the police commander of Maysan province for just 20 days. Harbia, who was handpicked by the Prime Minister to head the police side of the Amara operation, says the last commander "was transferred to the Interior Ministry in Baghdad because his administration was too weak."

Harbia isn't the only new face in Amara's forces. Since the initiative began, the city's forces have seen some reshuffling, he says, and Interior Ministry officials from Baghdad have been positioned in every major department. The campaign has also seen the arrests of 134 people and several local officials, most notably the city's acting deputy governor, Rafea Abdul Jabbar, an al-Sadr supporter, and at least 20 police, he says. "There was an order from the court to arrest [Jabbar] because he was cooperating with the fighters," he adds. Those Mahdi Army members who have avoided arrest have fled. Says Harbia: "Some of them have now escaped to neighboring villages, and others escaped to the marshlands." The police will follow them there, he adds.

But not every member of the police force is so direct about who the target is. Amara's city police chief, Colonel Kazim Nema Mohammed al-Moussawi, is one officer who survived the operation's purge of local officials and he, unlike Harbia, has held his post since 2007. Politically, it shows. "There are militias who call themselves the Mahdi Army, but they are not the Mahdi Army," al-Moussawi says, when asked to identify a target of the operations. "The real Mahdi Army is staying in their homes."

Despite his powers of discrimination, al-Moussawi has a leading role in the general crackdown on al-Sadr's militia. On Friday morning, he led a convoy of four police trucks into downtown Amara, their sirens breaking up traffic as they sped down a packed central-market street. The day's mission: to arrest two men whom he said have been linked by a court to intra-Shi'ite revenge killings. Down a side alley, the trucks ground to a halt and the police stormed a small concrete house, arresting a young man.

After dropping the man off at the police station, al-Moussawi's force was back on the road — this time to investigate a tip about a weapons cache. At a nearby graveyard filled with garbage, the police uncovered a small collection of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortars — rusty remnants of the Iran-Iraq war, which al-Moussawi said militants now pack with fresh explosives to reuse.

The offensive has been tough, Amara's commanders say, but they're not going it alone. Shortly after the morning's mission, four American soldiers visited al-Moussawi's station to inquire about progress made in dismantling an office used by the Sadrists. One of the soldiers, who said they were under orders to prohibit the press from photographing them, put the number of American troops brought into the area since last month at around 1,000. They are also building a new forward operating base in the area.

Indeed, despite a low profile, Harbia says the support provided by the U.S. forces has been a key component in Amara's success. And having learned their lesson from Basra and Sadr City, Harbia says, the Mahdi Army is now on the run, and Iraqi forces are using the campaign to pave the way for smoother provincial elections in October — or as members of the Sadrist movement allege, to weaken support for Sadrist-allied candidates ahead of the elections.

"The operation was to create the atmosphere for proper provincial elections. One of the goals is to make the election go smoothly," says Harbia. "Now with the outstanding position of al-Maliki in Basra, Amara, Mosul and Sadr City, people are looking to him as an honest and nationalist man." And are Maliki's rivals in the Mahdi Army weaker now than they were a month ago? "This is for certain," Harbia says. "They are outside the law."