Baghdad, Iraq — Militiamen loyal to an anti-American cleric re-emerged Monday in the southern city of Amarah, hunting down and killing four policemen from a rival militia in a brutal Shiite-on-Shiite settling of scores.
The Iraqi army set up a few roadblocks but did not interfere in the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters after police fled the streets. The latest attacks came despite a public call by al-Sadr to halt the tribal vendetta, suggesting that splinter groups were developing within his militia.
The spread of revenge killings among Shiites in their southern heartland has opened a new and ominous front as American forces struggle to control insurgent and sectarian bloodshed to the north - especially in Baghdad.
In the capital, the U.S. military reported that a soldier was listed as missing Monday night and that American and Iraqi forces were scouring the area where he was last seen. The missing soldier is an Army translator, and the initial report is that he may have been abducted, said a military official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information was not cleared for release.
With the fighting weighing heavily on the prospects of Republican candidates in midterm elections two weeks away, the military on Monday announced four new U.S. deaths - a Marine and three soldiers. So far this month, 87 American service members have been killed in Iraq.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced a military crackdown to tame the country's staggering armed violence, taking special aim at continuing lawlessness in Amarah.
But his statement, while notable for its timing, appeared toothless, especially given that his army was standing aside in Amarah and has fallen short of delivering troops requested by the Americans for the ongoing security crackdown in Baghdad.
"The Iraqi government hereby warns all groups with illegal weapons to refrain from any armed activities that undermines public security. Let everyone be informed that orders have been issued to the armed forces to stop any transgression against state power and to confront any illegal attempt regardless of its source," al-Maliki wrote in his decree.
"The Iraqi government also calls in particular on the people of Maysan province to exercise caution and care in the face of attempts to drag the people of one nation into fighting and strife," he said. Amarah is the capital of Maysan province.
Despite the lawlessness in Amarah, officials at Britain's Ministry of Defense said Monday after meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair that the rest of Maysan province was expected to be handed over to Iraqi authorities either next month or early next year.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, in London for talks with Blair, declined to confirm the plan, but said he expected significant developments in the next year.
"We understand this cannot be an open-ended commitment by the international community. At the end of the day it is up to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to establish security," Saleh told reporters.
While October is on pace to be the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the siege of Fallujah in November 2004, the toll for Iraqis has reached staggering proportions.
According to an Associated Press count, October is on track to be the deadliest month for Iraqis since the AP began tracking deaths in April 2005. Through Monday, at least 961 Iraqis have been killed in war-related violence, an average of more than 41 each day.
That compares to an average daily death toll of about 27 since April 2005. The AP count includes civilians, government officials and police and security forces, and is considered a minimum based on AP reporting.
The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported. The United Nations has said that 100 Iraqis are being killed each day.