Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Nasiriya Quiet After Sadrist Uprising

Police held their ground as followers of radical Shia preacher attempted to take over the town.
By Hussein Ali

Nasiriya's main al-Habubi market street bustled with activity. Shoppers strolled down the pavement while travellers lined up at the bus stop to board minibuses and shared taxis to other towns.


Two days before, on August 5, the Mahdi Army militia loyal to Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr rose up in the southern town of Nasiriya, in response to news from their leaders that United States Marines had attacked his home.


But unlike the Sadrist uprising in April in which fighting went on for weeks here, this round lasted only a day before the militiamen went home.


The local police force and the Sadrists differed as to how the clashes started. Police said followers of Muqtada tried to take over the town, while the Sadrists said they were merely trying to prevent Italian troops from occupying the town.


But whatever its cause, the short duration of the violence suggests that the Sadrists' ability to wrest control from Nasiriya’s police has diminished since their last uprising.


According to the police, the uprising began after trucks with loudspeakers drove through the streets to mobilise Mahdi Army members in response to the fighting in Najaf, where the Shia militia were encircled by Coalition-led forces.


Bands of militiamen went to the police station, asking officers to evacuate it and join them in patrols across town.


In the first uprising, many police had supported the Sadrists. But this time round, the officers held their posts, even when the militiamen opened fire.


"They wanted to seize the building, and we protected it," said Nasiriya officer Khaled Walid, 30.


Sadrists also tried to take over other public buildings but were repulsed by National Guard paramilitaries and other defenders, the police said. Other Sadrists opened fire on forces from a nearby Italian unit, which was coming into Nasiriya to defend besieged police and National Guard forces.


The local hospital claimed seven civilians were killed in the fighting. Police said responsibility for these deaths rested with the Sadrists, who reportedly opened fire on an ambulance.


Sadrist spokesmen denied that they asked the police to abandon their station, or that gunfire from their side killed anyone.


"We didn't ask the police to leave their stations or public buildings. But we asked them to conduct joint patrols, out of our sense of responsibility for our town and our country." Raheem al-Zamili, an official in al-Sadr's office in the town, told IWPR.


The Sadrist goal, he said, was to drive out the foreigners. "We are at war. What we are doing is resisting the Italian forces," he said.


According to both police and Sadrists, the Italians have agreed not to re-enter the town.


Nasiriya citizens disagreed as to whether Muqtada’s followers were justified in using force to keep the Italians out.


"Foreign troops are occupiers, and it's our right to resist the occupation. Our resistance is legitimate," said Majid al-Atabi, 32, a poet and al-Sadr follower.


Malik Majeed Abdullah, 26, said he believed such clashes were "unacceptable".


"I perceive that sovereignty is in the hands of Iraqis, and I think negotiations are better than armed clashes," he said.


Hussein Ali and Firas al-Rekabi are IWPR trainees in Baghdad.