Basra carnage escalates as one person killed every hour

One person is being assassinated in Basra every hour, as order in Iraq's second city disintegrates, according to an Iraqi Defence Ministry official.

And a quarter of all Iraqi children suffer from malnutrition, a survey of 20,000 households by the Iraqi government and Unicef says.

The number of violent killings in Basra is now at a level close to that of Baghdad, and marks the failure of the British Army's three-year attempt to quell violence there. Police no longer dare go to the site of a murder because they fear being attacked. The governor of Basra, Mohammed Misbahal-Wa'ili, is trying to sack the city's police chief, claiming that the police have not carried out a single investigation into hundreds of recent assassinations.

The collapse of government authority in Iraq is increasing at every level and leaders in Baghdad have yet to form a cabinet, five months after parliamentary elections on 15 December.

Insurgent attacks on American and British troops are also proving more lethal, with 44 US soldiers and seven British killed so far this month, and with daily losses exceeding anything seen for more than a year.

Majid al-Sari, an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, describing the situation in Basra to the daily al-Zaman, said that on average one person was being assassinated every hour. Militiamen and tribesmen are often the only real authority. When Sheikh Hassan Jarih al-Karamishi was killed by men dressed in police uniforms at the weekend, Mr Sari said his heavily armed armed tribesmen stormed one police station in south Basra, killing 11 police, and burnt down two other buildings, headquarters for a political party.

Tribes who once lived in the marshlands outside Basra are engaged in constant feuds with other tribes. While militias owe allegiance to Shia parties, they are also suspected of receiving funds from Kuwaiti and Iranian intelligence.

The number of Iraqis killed as a result of violence receives some international attention, but many others, particularly young children, die because they are malnourished and vulnerable to disease. A quarter of all Iraqi children suffer from chronic malnutrition, according to an Iraqi government survey of more than 20,000 households, backed by Unicef's Iraq Support Centre.

The number of children between six months and five years old suffering from acute malnourishment rose from 4 per cent in 2002, the last year of Saddam Hussein's rule, to 9 per cent in 2005, Unicef said.

In the midst of the turmoil, Iraq's political leaders have been labouring unsuccessfully to put together a unity government. Their inability to do so after five months only serves to demonstrate their deep disunity. The prime minister-designate, Nuri al-Maliki, is due to announce a cabinet by next Monday, but there is no agreement on the most important posts such as the interior and defence ministries.

At the root of the failure to form a government is the fact that Shia religious parties won two parliamentary elections last year, on 30 January and 15 December.

Last year, Ibrahim al-Jaafari led a government based on an alliance between the Kurds and Shia religious parties. The Shia fear that the US and Britain, supporting the Kurdish and Sunni parties, want to rob them of their electoral victory.

Meanwhile, the rest of Baghdad has slipped into civil war. Yesterday gunmen shot dead five guards in the largely Shia district of Shaab. As bystanders went to help the dead and dying, a car bomb blew up beside an oil tanker, killing another 13 people.

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