By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 19, 2008
BAGHDAD, Jan. 18 -- More than 40 people were killed Friday during clashes between Iraqi security forces and an obscure Shiite sect in southern Iraq, the deadliest violence since the U.S.-led coalition handed over control of the region last month, Iraqi officials said.
Wearing black uniforms and yellow bandannas, the followers of a group that calls itself the Soldiers of Heaven attacked crowds that had gathered to celebrate one of Shiite Islam's holiest days in Basra, the country's second-largest city, and in the southern province of Dhi Qar, officials said.
The attacks represented the first major test of Iraqi security forces in the south since they took over formal control of the area from the British military. Iraqi officials asked for surveillance information and for aircraft flights to intimidate the sect members, which British forces provided, but did not request ground troops.
"The Iraqi forces handled themselves extremely well and got the situation under control," said Lt. Col. Derek Plews, a spokesman for the British military. "This is pretty much how we envisioned them dealing with an incident like this when we handed over security responsibility."
The group's attacks came as a spokesman for anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said Sadr might allow the Mahdi Army, one of the largest militias in the country, to become active again in February after a six-month freeze. U.S. military commanders believe the freeze has contributed to the drop in violence, but Sadr spokesman Ahmed al-Shaibani said the move "has not been met with a proper response from the government."
"The government is still relying on criminal elements among its security forces in the army and the police, especially in the provinces, without taking legal measures against them," Shaibani said. But he said that even if the freeze is not extended, members of the Mahdi Army "should remain disciplined and calm."
In Nasiriyah, the provincial capital of Dhi Qar, gunfire was heard on the streets past midnight despite the imposition of a curfew. The situation appeared calmer in Basra, according to witnesses, and Iraqi officials said the assault there by the Shiite group had been repelled.
The sect, whose members say it must cleanse Iraq of corruption to speed the return of a revered Shiite figure who vanished 1,000 years ago, was involved in a major battle with U.S. and Iraqi forces a year ago that left hundreds of its fighters dead.
About 10 a.m., sect fighters attacked a procession in Nasiriyah commemorating the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, another revered Shiite figure, witnesses said. Safa al-Ghanim, a local journalist, said he saw three policemen burnt to death in a police car that had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
A senior official with the provincial police, Naji Rustam, was killed after being ambushed by sect members hurling grenades, Ghanim said. He said two other officers were also killed in the clashes.
Nasiriyah police said 13 police officers and civilians were killed and 45 wounded in the attacks in the city, according to Ghanim and Abu Ahsan, another local journalist. They said the number of sect members killed was unknown.
Ahmed al-Sheik Taha, the deputy governor of the province, declined to provide a death toll because he said it was still rising.
In Basra, the fighting began about 1:30 p.m. and lasted for three hours, said Brig. Gen. Jalil Khahlaf, the provincial police chief. He said 30 fighters were killed, at least 25 wounded and more than 40 arrested. Three police officers were also killed, he said.
In restive Diyala province, north of Baghdad, six police officers were killed and six injured in separate incidents involving a booby-trapped house and clashes with militants, according to the Iraqi military.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Naseer Nouri, Saad al-Izzi, K.I. Ibrahim and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad, special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf, and other Washington Post staff in Diyala and Basra contributed to this report.