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Sadrists Fight On in Basra

Prime minister says there’s “no retreat” for Iraqi troops in battle for control of city.
By an IWPR-trained
Loyalists of the firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are showing no signs of backing down as the Iraqi government’s ultimatum for Mahdi army militiamen to surrender approaches.

Clashes between the Iraqi army and Sadr’s Mahdi army in the southern city of Basra stretched into their fourth day on Friday, March 28, while security in Baghdad remained tenuous. Fighting has also been reported in the southern Shia provinces of Karbala, Missan and Wassit.

US warplanes reportedly carried out at least two air strikes overnight in Basra for the first time since clashes began.

The news agency Associated Press said a British military spokesman said that while the American jets had been providing air support to Iraqi security forces since Monday, it was the first time that bombs had been dropped. A US military spokesman confirmed that one of its helicopters fired a missile during fighting in Baghdad's militia stronghold of Sadr City, killing four gunmen.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited Basra on March 24, declaring that Sadr’s men would be given until late today to surrender. In a speech broadcast on Iraqi state television, Maliki said that the government was fighting lawless militias controlling Basra and vowed that there would be “no retreat”.

The battle for control of Basra is a major test for the government, which took over security from British forces in December 2007.

Sadr representatives have accused the government of deliberately targeting its members ahead of the crucial October 2008 provincial elections and vowed to fight US and Iraqi forces. Shia parties have vied for political and economic control of Basra since 2003.

“We know that there are some factions who want to weaken us so that we will not be represented in the provincial elections,” said Harith al-Uzari, head of Sadr’s office in Basra.

“If the government continues with this policy we will defend ourselves,” vowed Mazin al-Sa’di, head of Sadr’s office in Baghdad’s al-Karikh neighbourhood. “We will take up arms and stand against the government and the Americans.”

But government officials deny the Sadrists are being targeted.

“This operation is not against the Sadr movement,” maintained Brigadier Abdul-Aziz Mohammad, head of military operations at the ministry of defence.

“It is against criminal gangs and militias who are acting under the name of religion.”

Maliki cancelled his visit Arab League summit in Damascus this weekend to oversee a massive military operation called Saulat al-Fursan (Charge of the Knights). Maliki said the goal was to eradicate “outlaws and criminal gangs who want to disable Basra”.

Muhan al-Furayji, commander of Basra security operations, said the city had become a “hotbed for gangs and outlaws who were committing crimes against people like women and professors”.

Tensions have run high between Sadr and Maliki since Maliki’s government came to power in 2006. Sadr withdrew his loyalists from the cabinet in August 2007 and also declared a ceasefire that month.

Along with the US troop surge last year, the ceasefire - which some fear may have collapsed with this week’s fighting - has been widely credited for helping to reduce violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, is home to its largest port and Iraq’s main oil export hub. An oil pipeline was damaged in a bomb attack on March 27 in Zubair, south of Basra.

“The factions that want to halt the [security] operation have a huge interest because they have militias and smuggle oil from Basra,” said Ali al-Adib, an MP and a senior leader in Maliki’s Dawa party.

Although Iraqi forces took over security from the British in Basra in December, they have never had full control of the province, where various Shia factions have vied for power since 2003.

In a statement issued on March 28, Maliki said the government would pay anyone in Basra who turned in their weapons by April 8.

Basra’s streets have been empty for most of the week, with government offices, schools and markets closed. Most residents have been trapped in their homes, as sounds of gunfire and rockets echo throughout the city.

A tribal leader who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Mahdi army members were committing crimes throughout Basra.

“They have assassination teams who kill women because they don’t obey sharia (Islamic laws),” he said. “Everyone is afraid of them because they are a mafia.”

The death toll has increased to more than 100 since the clashes started in the city, and the number of injured is higher still, according to a source from Basra health directorate. The source added that fierce clashes had broken out in the city’s Hayaniyah neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, rockets and mortars have been launched at the US embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone almost daily.

Shia parties in the south have competed furiously for control of the region since the fall of Saddam. Armed clashes among the rival Shia groups have erupted several times, and the Iraqi government’s previous attempts to control security in Basra have been met with resistance.

The powerful United Iraqi Alliance, which includes the two major Shia parties, the Supreme Islamic Council and Dawa, is backing the official crackdown.

“Maliki wants to get rid of us based upon a decision from the Supreme [Islamic] Council, al-Dawa party and the Americans,” said Abu Hatam, a Sadr militia leader in the al-Hayaniyah neighbourhood of Basra, who did not want his full name used. “Maliki wants to be like Saddam, but we will never let that happen.”

Earlier this week, Sadr urged Iraqis to conduct civil disobedience campaigns throughout country to protest the government’s military operations in Basra. On March 27, he called for a political solution to end the "shedding of Iraqi blood".

In Baghdad, thousands of angry protesters poured into streets of Shia majority neighbourhoods, demanding that Maliki resign and calling him “the new dictator”. The government imposed a three-day curfew in the capital which lasts until 5am on Sunday.

Spokesman for the Iraqi government Ali al-Dabagh denounced the call for disobedience, calling it “an act of terror”. “Anyone who commits it will be tried under the anti-terrorism law,” he said.

Other political parties said they were worried that the violence has dashed hopes of stabilising Iraq.

“The fighting in Basra might wipe out all of the efforts that were spent to bring about stability to the country,” said Saleem al-Juboori, a member of Iraqi National Accord, the main Sunni group in parliament.

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