Iraq: Battle of the militias

The violent showdown between rival factions in Amarah was contained by the Iraqi military. But it underscored the growing threat across the country from virtual private armies
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The Independent Online

Shia militias fought gun battles with Iraqi police for a second day running yesterday, and at least 16 people were killed in a market bombing as worsening violence tested the Shia-led government's ability to rein in militias.

It also exposed a power struggle that threatens to further complicate the US task in Iraq. The escalation in Shia infighting comes as Shias and Sunnis are engaged in a vicious sectarian conflict and insurgents are battling both Iraqi and US troops.

Violence erupted in Suwayra after some 150 Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr attacked a police station in the town 30 miles south of Baghdad. Eight gunmen died and two civilians were wounded. And in Mahmoudiyah, a late afternoon mortar and bomb attack killed at least 30 in the marketplace.

Meanwhile, a lull of unpredictable length in the battle for Amarah settled on the southern Iraq city after government security forces retook control of streets where 750,00 people live in conditions of almost perpetual violence.

Two days of clashes between elements of the Mahdi Army loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's faction and police controlled by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's Badr Brigades, left 25 dead, underscoring alarm about the growing influence of such virtual private armies, both of whose leaders exert influence within the national parliament.

The fighting came as Sunni insurgents staged audacious military-style parades in a pair of cities west of Baghdad, advertising their defiance of US forces and their Iraqi allies. The Iraqi military on Friday sent about 600 reinforcements to retake Amarah. British forces who had turned over control of the city in August said they had 500 soldiers on standby if the government called for help.

But by Saturday, shops and government offices had reopened while army units manned checkpoints around the city which sits at the head of Iraq's famous marshlands where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers draw close together. National Security Minister Shirwan al-Waeli met tribal leaders in efforts to ease the tension.

The Amarah showdown also highlighted the risk of an all-out conflict between rival Shia factions linked to political blocs wielding considerable influence over the shaky four-month-old government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It also underlined the deep underlying rift that exists between the Mahdi Army faction and that of the more traditional but powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), headed by key power-broker Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.

Mahdi gunmen had attacked after the seizure of one of their leaders by local police who are largely controlled by Iraq's other main Shia militia. The Badr Brigades are loyal to Mr al-Hakim, who returned from decades in Iranian exile after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Amarah lies just 30 miles from the border with Iran, where the Shia theocracy is said to be funding, arming and training both factions. The turmoil and killings there looked more ominous, especially as they marked one of the first serious armed confrontations among Shias. Most recent killings in Iraq involved tit-for-tat attacks between Shias and Sunni Arabs, the minority sect in Iraq that dominated the country until Saddam fell.

Amarah is a major population centre in the resource-rich yet impoverished south and a traditional centre of Shia defiance to successive Iraqi regimes. Its marshlands were drained by Saddam during the 1990s in reprisal for the city's role in the Shia uprising after the Gulf War. Saddam ordered the killing of tens of thousands of Shias in retribution.

At the height of the fighting Friday, television film showed thick, black smoke billowing from behind barricades at a police station, much of it from vehicles set on fire inside the compound. Hooded gunmen roamed the streets with Kalashnikov automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Most of the streets were deserted except for the gunmen. The militiamen later withdrew from their positions and lifted their siege under a truce brokered by an al-Sadr envoy as the Iraqi forces entered the city.

The fighting came just days after Mr al-Maliki met Mr al-Sadr at the cleric's Najaf headquarters to enlist support for capping sectarian violence and to bolster his government, which is increasingly at odds with the US for not disbanding the militias, among other issues.

The timing of the violence may have indicated that Mr al-Sadr and other Mahdi Army commanders did not have full control over individual units, lending weight to speculation that Shia gunmen were splitting off from the main organisation to pursue their own agendas. The US military said it counts 23 separate militias in Baghdad alone.

The British military spokesman in Basra, headquarters for Britain's 7,200 soldiers in Iraq, sought to play down the seriousness of Friday's fighting, noting that 600 Iraqi soldiers were able to force Mahdi Army fighters off the streets, arrange a truce and return quiet to the city by Friday afternoon. "It's like when you take the training wheels off a bike. There are some wobbles. This was a pretty big wobble, but it's still moving in the right direction," said spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge. "They have applied a solution and at the moment it's holding. It's tense but calm."

Under mounting US pressure, Shia Premier Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to disband militias. But Mr al-Maliki is dependent on parties with ties to the militias. Mr al-Sadr has a large bloc in parliament which provides key support to the Prime Minister's coalition and moving against him could weaken his five-month-old government.

In a sign of mounting government concern over Sadr's militias, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani travelled to the holy city of Najaf on Saturday to meet the cleric.