Thursday, March 27, 2008

Iraq News Bulletin: Fresh Clashes Grip South; Mass Anti-US Demonstrations in Baghdad

Fresh clashes grip southern Iraq

The number of gunfights appears to be growing

Heavy fighting has continued for a third day between Shia militias and the Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq.

There are reports of extensive exchanges of fire between the Iraqi army and militiamen in Basra and in the town of Hilla, just south of Baghdad.

More than 70 people have died and hundreds have been injured in days of violence sparked by an Iraqi crackdown on Shia militias in Basra.

Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki vowed to fight Basra's Shia militias "until the end".

"We have made up our minds to enter this battle and we will continue until the end. No retreat," said Mr Maliki in a speech broadcast on Iraqi state television.

On Wednesday, the prime minister, who has personally overseen the operation in Basra, gave Shia militants there 72 hours to lay down their arms or face "severe penalties".

The leader of the Mehdi Army, Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, has spoken of the possibility of negotiations to end the violence.


In Basra, police chief Adbul Jalil Khalaf said he survived an assassination attempt overnight, in which three of his bodyguards were killed.

Residents in the city have said that they are beginning to run out of food and water.

One told the BBC that the Iraqi army broke into shops, took food and water, then set fire to shops and cars on the street.

-Third largest city, population 2.6 million approx
-Located on the Shatt al-Arab waterway leading to the Gulf - making it a centre for commerce and oil exports
-Region around city has substantial oil resources
-4,000 UK troops based at international airport.

"I am trying to look out of the window now, but I can't - the smoke's really heavy and smells really bad. Everything is burnt," he said.

An oil pipeline near Basra, which carries oil for export, was damaged by a bomb.

A Southern Oil Company official told Reuters news agency the main pumping station of Zubair 1 had been shut down and that exports would be greatly affected.

In other developments across the country:

-The FBI said it had recovered the bodies of two US security contractors kidnapped in Iraq in 2006
-A prominent civilian spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, Tahseen Sheikhly, a Sunni who often appeared with US officials at news conferences, was kidnapped by gunmen from his home in the capital
-Thousands of Sadr supporters gathered in Baghdad's Sadr City, a vast Shia-dominated suburb, to demand Mr Maliki's resignation over the military operation
-Baghdad's fortified Green Zone was again hit by several rounds of rockets, causing a fire, Iraqi and US embassy officials said
-Iraqi police in Kut said dozens of people were killed in clashes on Thursday between Iraqi and US forces, and Shia militiamen, the AFP news agency reported
-There have also been clashes through the night and the early morning in the towns of Hilla and Diwaniya.

Power struggle

The number of gunfights in southern Iraq appears to be growing, says the BBC's Crispin Thorold in Baghdad.

The fighting still seems to be mainly with members of the Mehdi Army, our correspondent says.

The Medhi Army had held to a ceasefire since last August, contributing to the general fall in violence across Iraq.

It is not clear what has prompted the government crackdown at this time. The government says its campaign aims to re-impose law and order in Basra.

However, Sadrists say the government is attempting to weaken the militias before local elections scheduled for October.

At stake, analysts say, is control of Iraq's only port city and the region's oil fields.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2008/03/27 15:23:21 GMT

Protests in Baghdad as Basra rocked by fighting

Salam Faraj
Baghdad, Iraq
27 March 2008 11:12

Followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr staged noisy protests on Thursday against a crackdown on Shi'ite fighters in Basra as the southern oil hub was rocked by a third straight day of fighting.

Demonstrations were held in Sadr City and Kadhimiyah, two Baghdad bastions of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia, even as preliminary contacts were held between the government and Sadrist officials in a bid to resolve the crisis.

An Agence France-Presse correspondent in Basra said heavy fighting erupted early on Thursday in the central Jumhuriyah neighbourhood, a Mehdi Army bastion, which was rocked by rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and small arms fire.

Iraqi troops launched security operations on Tuesday in Basra neighbourhoods controlled by the Mehdi Army under orders from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to rid the city of "lawless gangs".

In Sadr City, an impoverished Shi'ite district of about two million people in east Baghdad, crowds gathered from 10am local time to yell slogans against Maliki, who is in Basra overseeing the military operations.

"Maliki you are a coward! Maliki is an American agent! Leave the government, Maliki! How can you strike Basra?" the crowd chanted.

In the Kadhimiyah neighbourhood of north Baghdad, followers of Sadr carried a coffin covered in red fabric with an attached photograph of Maliki set against the background of an American flag.

Under the picture were the words: "This is the new dictator."

Sheikh Ayad al-Kaabi, a Sadr official, said that the demonstration was called "to demand the resignation of the Maliki government".

"We demand the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Basra and an end to the siege in Baghdad," he said.

The Sadr movement had announced on Wednesday it would hold protest rallies against Maliki in Baghdad and the southern city of Amara, while Sadr has threatened to launch a civil revolt if the attacks against the militiamen are not halted.

Police spokesperson Colonel Karim al-Zaidi said the convoy of Basra police chief Major General Abdul Jalil Khalaf was hit by a suicide car bomber at about 1am local time on Thursday as it passed through the streets of Basra.

"Three policemen were killed in the attack," Zaidi said, adding that Khalaf was unharmed.

Residents said the streets of the oil-rich city of 1,5-million people, the economic nerve centre of Iraq, were deserted on Thursday and that shops and businesses were shut.

On Wednesday Maliki gave militiamen battling his forces in Basra 72 hours to lay down their arms and warned that those failing to do so would face the full brunt of the law.

Basra has become the theatre of a bitter turf war between the Mehdi Army and two rival Shi'ite factions -- the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and the smaller Fadhila party.

The three factions are fighting to control the huge oil revenues generated in the province, which was transferred to Iraqi control by the British military in December.

An aide to Sadr said representatives of the Iraqi government and a Sadrist official held preliminary talks by telephone on Thursday in a bid to end the crisis in Basra.

Liqa ali-Yassin, a member of Sadr's 32-member parliamentary bloc, said Liwa Sumaysim, head of Sadr's political bureau in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, spoke by telephone with Shi'ite MP Ali al-Adib from Maliki's Dawa party.

The two were planning to hold face-to-face talks in Basra but Yassin was unable to say exactly when the meeting would take place.

US military spokesperson Major General Kevin Bergner told a news conference on Wednesday that 2 000 extra Iraqi security forces had been sent to Basra for the operation.

He said it was aimed at improving security in the city ahead of provincial elections in October. -- AFP

Fighting continues in Basra

Dozens of Iraqis have reportedly been killed and hundreds more injured in the violence

Fighters have struck at the heart of the Iraqi administration, with the heavily defended Green Zone in Baghdad coming under repeated mortar barrage.

The attacks on Thursday came as Basra remained in the grip of heavy fighting for the third day between the Iraqi army and Shia militias, with reports of explosions every few minutes.

Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, was in Basra personally overseeing the operation that has sparked violence across the country, leaving more than 50 people dead and another 300 injured.

Three US employees were reported to be seriously wounded in the Green Zone mortar attacks.

The violence began on Tuesday, when Iraqi troops launched operations to rid Basra of "lawless gangs".

Fighting then spread to al-Sadr's stronghold in Baghdad and other cities.

Najaf meetings

Behind the scenes, government officials and senior Mahdi Army figures loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader, are said to be holding talks to end the fighting.

Meetings were held in Najaf on Thursday to try to end the crisis, Liqa Ali Yassin, a member of al-Sadr's 32-member parliamentary bloc, said.

On Wednesday, al-Sadr had demanded that al-Maliki leave Basra and send a parliamentary delegation for talks on resolving the crisis.

Thursday's clashes came in defiance of a Friday deadline given by al-Maliki for armed groups to give up their weapons or face "severe penalties".

A fire also raged near Basra after a bomb exploded underneath an oil pipeline, Iraqi officials said.

The oil-rich city, located 550km south of Baghdad, is home to about 1.5 million people.

Al-Maliki condemned

Followers of al-Sadr staged protests in Baghdad on Thursday to denounce the Basra crackdown.

In the Sadr City district, demonstrators shouted: "Maliki you are a coward! Maliki is an American agent! Leave the government, Maliki! How can you strike Basra?"

Protests were also planned in the southern city of Amara.

Al-Sadr has threatened to launch a civil revolt if attacks against his supporters are not halted.

Al Jazeera's James Bays, reporting from Baghdad, said the crackdown in Basra was meant as a show of strength by al-Maliki.

"I think the prime minister is trying to put his stamp in this operation. No one expected that he would go to Basra," he said.

"Al-Maliki wants to show that he is in control because in the past, he was seen as a weak, impotent leader."

Conflicting reports

Iraqi sources told Al Jazeera that about 60 civilians were killed in a US air strike on the city of southern city of Hilla, although there were conflicting reports.

Iraqi security sources said that 29 people were killed.

The Basra operation extended north to Kut, where six Iraqi security personnel and six civilians were reportedly killed as troops fought militia members street by street.

To the west in Diwaniyah, Shia fighters attacked a police station, killing two people.

In Tikrit, at least seven civilians were reportedly killed and nine others were wounded in US air strikes that destroyed two homes, according to Al Jazeera sources.

Khalaf Haloul, a resident of Amara, told Al Jazeera by telephone that clashes between Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army were under way there as well.

He said mortars and rockets could be heard across the city.

Mahdi Army fighters had deployed in all areas of Amara in anticipation of military attacks, Haloul said.

Convoy attack

The fighting was most intense in Basra.

Colonel Karim al-Zaidi, a police spokesman, said the convoy of Major-General Abdul Jalil Khalaf, the city's police chief, was hit by a suicide car bomber around 1am on Thursday [2200 GMT Wednesday] as it passed through the streets of the city.

Al-Zaidi said three policemen were killed in the attack but Khalaf was unharmed.

Residents said the streets of Basra were deserted on Thursday and that shops and businesses were shut.

Before the current unrest, Basra had become the battlefield for a turf war between the Mahdi Army and two rival Shia factions - the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and the smaller Fadhila party.

The three factions are fighting to control the huge oil revenues generated in the province, which was transferred to Iraqi control by the British military in December.

US military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner said on Wednesday that 2,000 extra Iraqi security forces had been sent to Basra for the operation.

He said it was aimed at improving security in the city ahead of provincial elections in October.

"The prime minister's assessement is that without this operation there will not be any hopeful prospect of improving security in Basra," Bergner said.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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