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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: SHIITE MUSLIM RIVALRIES; LOOTED
WEAPONS STOCKPILES

9 injured as Shiite parties clash in Basra

Days after a British troop drawdown, Sadr loyalists attack a rival's office as groups vie for power ahead of vote.

March 23, 2007|Ned Parker and Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Two days after British forces began withdrawing from the center of the southern city of Basra, a bloody gunfight broke out Thursday between rival Shiite Muslim parties, a sign of the potential for increased bloodshed as foreign troops leave Iraq and various factions compete to fill the power vacuum.

A citywide curfew was imposed after the incident, in which nine people were wounded. It was the latest in a series of skirmishes between followers of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr and those of other Shiite political parties in central and southern Iraq. The fighting comes amid the sectarian violence that has raged between Shiites and minority Sunni Arabs who dominated the country before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The strife in Basra provides an overt reminder of the divisions among Iraq's Shiites, who make up an estimated 60% of the country's 26 million people. The rifts have been overshadowed by the deadlier and often more spectacular violence that has characterized Sunni insurgents' attacks against Shiites and U.S.-led forces.

With provincial elections looming, the Shiite factions are battling for control over local government and business functions in central and southern Iraq, from oil operations in Basra to the police force in Diwaniya, a provincial capital 95 miles south of Baghdad.

The violence raises questions about the long-term viability of the effort to secure Iraq, especially in light of Thursday's attack by gunmen targeting a political office in Basra after British troops withdrew from one of three downtown bases and turned over greater enforcement responsibilities to the Iraqis.

"This is why, when we speak of civil war in Iraq, we are not talking of a sectarian conflict only, but a number of simultaneous, partly intersecting conflicts that together increasingly point to a failed-state scenario," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group.

Military officials say the violence among Shiite factions in Iraq's south and central regions may be fueled in part by the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown launched Feb. 13 in Baghdad. The crackdown has driven many of Sadr's Al Mahdi militiamen from their stronghold in the capital's Sadr City neighborhood.

"More Sadrists are coming down," said Polish Maj. Gen. Pawel Lamla, who commands 1,500 troops in two southern provinces. "We can observe much more events, incidents and attacks."

On Thursday morning, Sadr loyalists wearing ski masks and carrying guns and rocket launchers attacked the offices of Al Fadila al Islamiya in Basra and battled with guards. The governor's house was also attacked. Al Fadila, which recently withdrew from the broad Shiite coalition in the national parliament, heads most local government functions and dominates Basra's oil facilities, the most lucrative in Iraq.

The assault seems to have been prompted by a dispute between Sadr loyalists and an engineer who runs the local electricity department and is a member of Al Fadila. They said they had filed a complaint with the governor, who declined to intervene.

"The governor told us to go and do what we think proper, and we thought that we should give a lesson to those who would like to control and enslave people," said a Sadr follower, who declined to be identified.

A third Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, sought to mediate the dispute.

British military spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin Stratford-Wright said there was no link between the day's strife and the handing over of Basra's old state building to Iraqi troops. Still, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri Maliki, to "express regret" for the incident, according to a statement from Maliki's office.

British Embassy spokeswoman Rosie Tapper said the violence "was not encouraging."

"They are certainly quite high-profile attacks," she said.

A Western diplomat said Sadr followers in Basra were deeply divided, with little central command and breakaway factions, some of which were backed by Iran.

Some of the extremist groups may be affiliated with Sadr, and others may be entirely separate, said the diplomat, who asked to remain unnamed. "It's a very confusing, fractured picture."

A day earlier, in the central Iraqi city of Kut, three alleged Sadr supporters stopped a car carrying a provincial town mayor, Khalaf Ghargan, at a bogus roadblock and shot him to death, police said. They were aided by six members of the local police force, police officials said.

The shooting occurred amid a struggle for control of the government in the area, which is run by local affiliates of SCIRI, the largest Shiite bloc in parliament. The alleged Sadr followers involved in the assassination were killed and the police officers arrested, according to local police. Kut, the capital of Wasit province, was placed under a curfew Thursday.

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