By Ellen Knickmeyer and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 19, 2006
BAGHDAD, May 18 -- President Jalal Talabani convened an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss the southern port of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and the heart of a growing, lethal power struggle among some of the Shiite Muslim religious parties that lead Iraq's governing coalition.
Violence in the south Thursday included a bombing at the home of Basra's police chief. In Najaf, another major city in the Shiite-dominated region, the head of local militias loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was shot dead by police allied with a rival Shiite party.
Political violence across Iraq killed at least two dozen Iraqis. Four U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter were killed when their patrol hit a roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad, and the U.S. military reported the death Wednesday of an American sailor in the western province of Anbar.
The deaths brought the number of U.S. fatalities in May to about 50, a pace that threatens to make this month one of the deadliest this year for American forces in Iraq.
In Baghdad, Talabani summoned Iraq's two vice presidents to discuss the situation in Basra, where one of the smaller Shiite groups, the Islamic Virtue Party, has been engaging in increasingly open hostilities against other Shiite religious parties.
Basra, which is under the control of British forces, was long seen as one of the more peaceful areas of Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The homogeneity of its Shiite population spared it from much of the sectarian violence that racked western and central Iraq.
However, the British troops, who are more hands-off than their American counterparts, are increasingly being accused of allowing militias of the governing Shiite religious parties to infiltrate security forces and seize a large measure of control.
Although the killings of foreign and Iraqi journalists in Basra have limited coverage in the city, residents describe political violence that leaves corpses on the streets daily. Iraqi newspapers this week reported Basra residents fleeing to comparative safety abroad or even in Baghdad.
The governor of Basra province, a member of the Islamic Virtue Party, last week demanded the removal of Basra's police chief and local military leader, accusing them of failing to rein in political and sectarian killings. Since then, the unrest has included an attack on a police station; burning of offices of Iraq's most powerful Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; and marches Wednesday that drew thousands of participants.
Talabani assigned Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a member of the Supreme Council, to a task force on the Basra crisis. On Thursday, Abdul Mahdi invoked "the responsibility of the political powers to calm down the situation." In a news conference with his fellow vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, and Talabani, Abdul Mahdi urged leaders in Basra "not to be diverted by political and party interests when handling the issues of the city."
In Najaf, meanwhile, police shot dead Abbas al-Chillabi, commander of the local regiments of the Mahdi Army militia. An official with Sadr's organization, Sahib al-Amiry, said police shot Chillabi in the head at a checkpoint, and he called it a deliberate political killing.
The Najaf police chief, Brig. Gen. Abbas Moadal, called the shooting an accident. Police at the checkpoint had believed they were under attack when a wedding party that apparently included Chillabi approached the checkpoint, firing shots into the air in celebration, the police chief said.
The killing had the potential to heighten tensions between Sadr's followers and those of the Supreme Council, which controls many government and security offices in Najaf. Both the Supreme Council and Sadr command tens of thousands of militia members.
In Baghdad, the same Shiite parties are among those competing with Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular blocs for seats in Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet. Maliki faces a Monday deadline to name the new government, which U.S. officials say they hope will bring calm and stability.
Also in Baghdad, coaches, athletes and families gathered Thursday at the capital's taekwondo union, consoling one another and waiting for news about 15 martial arts competitors -- including five members of Iraq's national taekwondo team and the only Iraqi to win a medal at an Asian regional competition in April -- who were abducted Monday on the dangerous desert road between Fallujah and Ramadi. The athletes, dressed in track suits and athletic shoes, had been heading to neighboring Jordan for a vacation.
Jamal Abdul Karim, head of the Iraqi Taekwondo Union, said he and other employees of the club each gave a year's salary Thursday to raise the $100,000 ransom demanded by someone claiming to be an intermediary for the captors.
"We've been praying from the bottom of our hearts to get them released," said Aqeel Abdul-Karim, 26, an employee of the club and friend of the kidnapped athletes.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Bassam Sebti and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff members in Iraq contributed to this report.