By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 17, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug. 16 -- Clashes between rival Shiite Muslim militias erupted Wednesday in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, when scores of gunmen stormed the governor's office after accusing his supporters of assassinating their tribal leader. Meanwhile, car bombs in Baghdad killed 25 people.
The gunmen in Basra, a predominantly Shiite city, laid siege to the office for two hours, lobbing mortar shells and barricading nearby bridges, before British troops and Iraqi police pushed them back. The fighting left at least four policemen dead, police said. Authorities imposed a curfew on the city.
As U.S. and Iraqi forces focus their efforts on taming sectarian violence in Baghdad, Wednesday's bloodshed served as a reminder of the tenuous security conditions across Iraq, and how precariously the country teeters on the edge of civil war.
In once calm southern cities such as Basra and Karbala, a Shiite holy city, fighting between Shiite militias and U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces, as well as among rival Shiite militias, appears to be on the rise. Meanwhile, northern cities such as Mosul, which had faced constant attacks, are experiencing new waves of violence along ethnic and political fault lines.
Tensions also are rising between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the powerful anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is emerging as the main Shiite obstacle to U.S. efforts to establish order and security in Baghdad as well as in the south.
Many of the militias are affiliated with radicalized clerics or political parties in Iraq's fragile coalition government. Some leaders, such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the influential Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have called for neighborhood militias to provide security, a move that would strengthen their power bases.
On Tuesday, the deputy governor of Najaf, Abdul Hussain Abtan, a follower of Hakim, advocated such self-defense units and said he would begin selecting candidates to head them, according to reports in Iraqi media. Last week, a suicide bomber in the city killed more than 30 people in front of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines.
When asked whether the recent militia fighting in the south was coordinated and potentially destabilizing for the country, a U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, replied: "I don't have the complete picture to give you right now, but it did not appear to be anything that was out of control. It appeared to be something that was being brought back under control."
Lately, though, the Shiite-dominated south appears to be spiraling into an abyss of violence, fueled largely by power struggles within the religious sect.
In Karbala, fierce gun battles erupted Tuesday between the followers of radical cleric Mahmoud Sarkhi al-Hassani and Iraqi security forces who raided his office, leaving seven people dead. The clashes quickly spread to nearby towns. The crackdown on Hassani came after his followers apparently tried to take over several districts in Karbala, authorities said.
Wahab Razouki, a senior official of the Fadhila party, another Shiite group, accused Hassani's armed followers of planning to take over religious shrines in the city. The Iraqi army said in a statement that it had restored order to Karbala by Wednesday and had arrested 281 participants in the unrest. But Hassani's supporters gathered in several nearby towns and threatened to march on Karbala, police said.
The clashes Wednesday in Basra were sparked by the assassination of Sheik Faisal, the leader of the Shiite Beni Assad tribe, by unidentified gunmen on Monday, authorities said. His supporters, who reside in a neighborhood north of the city, accused the rival Fadhila party of orchestrating the attack. They charged the office of the governor, also a Fadhila party member, to demand that he arrest and hand over the killers.
The clashes were the latest in a series of violent incidents among Shiite groups in Basra in recent months.
After British forces entered Basra in April 2003 during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the city held the promise of becoming the most stable in Iraq. For months, the British maintained order, while Baghdad descended into chaos.
But by last year, dozens of assassinations had taken place in Basra. The police internal affairs division was shuttered last year after accusations that it ran death squads. In recent months, rival Shiite militias, such as Sadr's Mahdi Army and Fadhila's armed wing, have fought openly in the streets of Basra.
In June, hundreds of Hassani's followers attacked the Iranian Consulate in Basra, hurling stones and setting fire to a building after another Shiite cleric criticized Hassani on Iranian television as a fake cleric and pawn of Israel, according to news reports.
With deaths mounting, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a state of emergency in Basra in June and dispatched several thousand troops to crack down on the militias with an "iron fist."
On Wednesday, Maliki dispatched Brig. Gen. Abdul Khidhir al-Tahir, a member of his security committee, to Basra.
"There was an anticipation that Basra is facing problems and security violations because of its tribal and social structure, and also because of the presence of unharmonious powers in the city," Tahir told al-Iraqiya television.
In Mosul, where relations between Arabs and Kurds are tense, violence has also risen steadily. In June, authorities reported that 25 Iraqis, most of them Kurds, had been shot and killed.
On Aug. 4, insurgents attacked local police with car bombs, killing four officers and wounding eight, before police fought them off.
"Now we have total control over the security situation, and we are in complete control over all the streets and areas of Mosul," Wathiq al-Hamadani, the city's police commander, said at the time.
Yet on Tuesday, a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden truck into the headquarters of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, killing at least nine people, including four party members, and wounding 36. And on Wednesday, gun battles raged between Iraqi police and armed men in several neighborhoods, police said.
In Baghdad, 14 people were killed and 39 were injured in roughly two hours Wednesday morning, according to Col. Basim Mohammed, an Interior Ministry official.
Three mortar rounds fell at 8:15 a.m. in central Baghdad's al-Fadhil area, seriously injuring five people and damaging shops and houses. A few minutes later, three mortar shells struck the Health Ministry building, injuring three people.
At 10 a.m., an improvised bomb exploded under a memorial to two dozen children killed last year in a car bombing, killing two people and injuring three. About 30 minutes later, a car bomb detonated in the al-Nahdha district, a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood, killing 12 people, mostly day laborers waiting for work, and injuring 28.
In the evening, two more car bombs exploded in central Baghdad, killing 11 and wounding 44, police said.
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.