Maliki Orders Probe Into Festival Violence

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007

BAGHDAD, Sept. 2 -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday ordered a "professional and neutral" investigation into the violence that killed more than 50 people at a religious festival last week.

Speaking at a news conference in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, Maliki also strongly rebuked U.S. congressional Democrats who have called for his ouster.

"They do not realize the size of the disaster that Iraq has passed through and the major role of this government, a government of national unity," Maliki said in response to a question about calls for his removal from a handful of U.S. senators. "The most important achievement is it stopped a sectarian and civil war."

In less than two weeks, the White House is scheduled to receive a report about conditions in Iraq seven months into a stepped-up security plan that sent 30,000 additional troops to Baghdad. Last month, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) said that Maliki should be replaced because of his inability to unify rival political factions. Nearly half of Maliki's cabinet is boycotting meetings, and the government has made little visible progress on a series of political benchmarks considered key by the Bush administration.

Maliki said that criticism of his government from U.S. lawmakers sends "signals to terrorists luring them into thinking that the security situation in the country is not good."

Maliki also said the government would begin investigating the street fights that marred a Shiite religious festival in the southern city of Karbala last week. The announcement followed a demand for an investigation from influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands the largest Shiite militia in Iraq.

Police in Karbala said the violence was the result of clashes between the Mahdi Army, Sadr's militia, and the Badr Organization, the armed wing of Iraq's largest Shiite political party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The two groups have warred over control of the oil-rich southern region of Iraq, where the Supreme Council controls most of the local governments and the Mahdi Army maintains a significant presence.

In a statement Sunday morning, Sadr's office denied that his followers had caused the violence, saying they had fought only in self-defense. On Wednesday, the day after the Karbala clashes, Sadr ordered the Mahdi Army to "freeze operations" for up to six months, though he said Thursday he was considering rescinding that decision because of mass arrests of his followers.

As many as 200 Mahdi Army members have been arrested in and around Karbala since the clashes, prompting allegations from Sadr that the government is unfairly targeting the group.

Meanwhile, the bombing of villages in northern Iraq near the Iranian border continued on Sunday. Iraqi officials say the attacks are coming from Iran, which is allegedly targeting a splinter group of Iraqi Kurds that is seeking autonomy for Kurds in Iran.

Iranian officials have accused the Iraqi group, known as the Free Life Party, of bombing Iran.

The interior minister for Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, where the bombs have fallen, said Tuesday that at least 450 families have been displaced as a result of Iranian attacks.

Meanwhile, the British military began removing its 550 troops remaining in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, late Sunday, according to wire service reports. The troops will vacate Basra Palace, a compound formerly owned by Saddam Hussein, and move to a base on the outskirts of the city, an unidentified military official told the Associated Press.

The source said that the move does not represent a troop withdrawal but is the latest sign that the British are preparing to remove some or all of its troops from southern Iraq. The number of British supporters for an ongoing military presence has waned significantly, and many politicians have called on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to begin bringing the troops home.

Rival Shiite militias have battled openly in Basra, and the Basra Palace has been attacked with mortar shells and rockets almost daily. The Iraqi army is expected to move thousands of additional troops into Basra to take over from the British, sources told the Associated Press.

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.

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