Sadrists Battle SIIC, Iraqi Troops in Three Cities
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At least seven killed in fierce fighting between Mahdi army and US-Iraqi troops in crackdown on militia
By Ammar Karim
Middle East Online
Moqtada al-Sadr's militiamen Tuesday battled troops in three Iraqi cities on Tuesday, including the capital, as the hardline Shiite cleric threatened a countrywide campaign of civil revolt.
Heavy clashes broke out between Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters in the southern oil city of Basra, killing at least seven people and wounding 48, as well as in Kut, 175 kilometres (110 miles) southeast of Baghdad, officials said.
As evening fell, Mahdi Army fighters clashed with Iraqi and US forces in their Sadr City bastion in eastern Baghdad, a security official and witnesses said.
Troops had surrounded the sprawling impoverished neighbourhood of two million people and armed Shiite fighters were roaming the streets, a witness said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
The clashes are the first in Sadr City between the Shiite militia and US troops since October 21, when around 50 people were killed during US raids targeting an Iranian-linked insurgent.
The fighting, which severely strains a ceasefire declared by Sadr in late August and renewed last month, prompted the cleric to issue a stern warning that he would launch protests and a nationwide strike if attacks against his movement and "poor people" are not halted.
"We demand that religious and political leaders intervene to stop the attacks on poor people. We call on all Iraqis to launch protests across all the provinces.
"If the government does not respect these demands, the second step will be general civil disobedience in Baghdad and the Iraqi provinces," Sadr said in a statement read by his representative Hazam al-Aaraji in the holy city of Najaf.
Fighting raged from early morning in areas of Basra controlled by the Mahdi Army as troops and police launched a major crackdown on armed groups in the oil hub, considered the nerve centre of Iraq's national economy.
At least seven people were killed and 48 wounded, among them dozens of members of the Iraqi security forces, according to police and medics.
Fighting in Basra died away late afternoon and the streets were empty even of security force vehicles.
Clashes raged sporadically in Kut as militants fought Iraqi and US forces but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
In August, Sadr ordered a ceasefire following bloody fighting in the shrine city of Karbala blamed on his fighters, which were involved in two rebellions against US forces in 2004.
While Iraqi and US officials say most members of the militia have heeded the order, a number of what the US military terms "rogue elements" continue to attack American forces with mortars, rockets and roadside bombs.
Despite the ceasefire, Mahdi Army members are being subject to raids by the "occupiers" and Iraqi forces which are "destroying Iraqi houses," Sadr's statement said.
"Iraqis in general and Mahdi members in particular are paying the price."
British military officials said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was in Basra to personally oversee the major security force sweep in Iraq's second largest city, but that British troops were not taking part.
Fighting involving mortars, machine guns and assault weapons erupted soon after the security forces entered the Al-Tamiyah neighbourhood, a bastion of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, at around 5:00 am (0200 GMT). The fighting quickly spread to five other Mahdi Army neighbourhoods.
Television pictures showed Iraqi troops running through the streets firing weapons and taking cover as ambulances raced past. Thick palls of smoke were seen rising above the city skyline.
In the wake of the fighting police also imposed curfews in five central-southern Shiite cities -- Kut, Samawa, Nasiriyah, Hilla and Diwaniyah -- as well as in Sadr City.
Basra province was handed over to Iraqi control by British forces in mid-December.
It has since become the theatre of a bitter turf war between the Mahdi Army, the Badr organisation allied to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of powerful politician Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, and the smaller Shiite party, Fadhila, ahead of provincial elections in October.
After touring Basra on Monday, Maliki vowed his government would restore order, saying the city was experiencing a "brutal campaign" by internal and external groups targeting "innocent men and women."
"This is accompanied by the smuggling of oil, weapons and drugs... Basra has become a city where civilians cannot even secure their lives and property," Maliki said in a statement.
"That has affected negatively the economic development. The federal Iraqi government... will restore security, stability and enforce law in this city."
Sadr urges 'civil revolt' as battles erupt in Basra
A ceasefire crucial to recent security improvements in Iraq was today under severe strain after Moqtada al-Sadr called for "civil revolt" following a crackdown on Shia factions in Basra.
Iraqi security forces in the southern Iraqi city encountered heavy resistance as battles broke out with gunmen from Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Officials in Basra said 22 people were killed in the clashes, with a further 58 wounded.
Following the clashes, Sadr appeared to threaten to end the ceasefire, which was declared last August.
Lawmaker: Prime Minister, Dawa, SIIC Plan Liquidation of Sadrists
Voices of Iraq
A legislator from the Sadrist bloc on Friday accused the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) of planning a military campaign to liquidate the Sadrists in Babel province.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's "SIIC and the Dawa Party have held meetings with officers of the militias merged recently into security agencies to launch a military campaign outwardly to impose order and law but the real objective is to liquidate the Sadrist bloc," Ahmed al-Massoudi told Aswat al-Iraq -- Voices of Iraq.
"Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is directly supervising this scheme with officers from the Dawa Party and the SIIC," he added.
Massoudi warned that the Sadrists would be targeted in Babel just like they were targeted in the provinces of Diwaniya, Kut and Karbala.
"The Sadrists, however, have many options that can alter the political reality in Babel and other provinces," said Massoudi, not elaborating on the nature of these "options."
"The Sadrists are targeted because they cling to Iraq's unity and reject occupation," he said, warning against "an explosion amidst the popular circles as a result of the pressures practiced against the Sadrists."