Iraq implodes as Shia fights Shia

Another tragedy as the Shia majority turn on each other

A new civil war is threatening to explode in Iraq as American-backed Iraqi government forces fight Shia militiamen for control of Basra and parts of Baghdad.

Heavy fighting engulfed Iraq's two largest cities and spread to other towns yesterday as the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, gave fighters of the Mehdi Army, led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 72 hours to surrender their weapons.

The gun battles between soldiers and militiamen, who are all Shia Muslims, show that Iraq's majority Shia community – which replaced Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime – is splitting apart for the first time.

Mr Sadr's followers believe the government is trying to eliminate them before elections in southern Iraq later this year, which they are expected to win.

Mortars and rockets launched from Mehdi Army-controlled districts of Baghdad struck the Green Zone, the seat of American power in Iraq, for the third day yesterday, seriously wounding three Americans. Two rockets hit the parking lot of the Iraqi cabinet. The mixed area of al-Mansur in west Baghdad, where shops had begun to reopen in recent months, was deserted yesterday as Mehdi Army fighters were rumoured among local people to be moving in from the nearby Shia stronghold of Washash. "We expect an attack by the Shia in spite of the Americans being spread over Sunni districts to defend them," said a Sunni resident.

Forty people have been killed and at least 200 injured in Basra in the last two days of violence. In the town of Hilla, south of Baghdad, 11 people were killed and 18 injured yesterday by a US air strike called in support of Iraqi forces following street battles with Shia militia members in the city's Thawra neighbourhood. In Baghdad, 14 have been killed and 140 wounded.

The supporters of Mr Sadr, who form the largest political movement in Iraq, blame the Americans for giving the go-ahead for Mr Maliki's offensive against them and supporting it with helicopters and bomber aircraft. US troops have sealed off Sadr City, the close-packed slum in the capital with a population that is the main bastion of the Sadrists, while the Mehdi Army has taken over its streets, establishing checkpoints, each manned by about 20 heavily armed men. It is unlikely that the militiamen in Basra will surrender as demanded by the government. Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to Mr Maliki, said those who kept their weapons would be arrested. "Any gunman who does not do that within three days will be an outlaw."

Streets were empty in Basra and Baghdad as people stayed at home to avoid the fighting. The Mehdi Army is enforcing a strike in Baghdad with mosques calling for the closure of shops, businesses and schools.

In the Shia city of Kut, on the Tigris south of Baghdad, local residents say that black-clad Mehdi Army militiamen have taken over five districts and expelled the police.

At the same time, Mr Sadr is clearly eager to continue the truce which he declared on 29 August last year after bloody clashes in Kerbala with Iraqi police controlled by the rival Shia political movement, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and their well-organised militia, the Badr organisation.

He renewed this ceasefire in February, saying he wanted to purge its ranks of criminals. "The freeze that Sadr has ordered is still ongoing," said one of his chief lieutenants, Luwaa Smaism.

Mr Sadr has sought to avoid an all-out military confrontation with American troops or Badr backed by American forces since he fought two ferocious battles for Najaf against US marines in 2004.

Mr Sadr has sent emissaries to Mr Maliki asking him to remove his troops, numbering some 15,000 men from Basra, and to resolve problems peacefully. But his aides say there will be no talks until the Iraqi army reinforcements are withdrawn. The offer of talks is in keeping with Mr Sadr's past behaviour, which is to appear conciliatory but in practice to make few real concessions. The US is claiming that the Sadrists are not being singled out, only Iran-supported militia factions, but this will find few believers in Iraq.

"This is not a battle against the [Mehdi Army] nor is it a proxy war between the United States and Iran," said a US military spokesman, Major General Kevin Bergner. "It is [the] government of Iraq taking the necessary action to deal with criminals on the streets."

The Sunni population is pleased to see the government and the Americans attacking the Mehdi Army, which they see as a Shia death squad. "Before, the Shia were arresting and killing us and forcing us to leave Iraq for Jordan and Syria where we lived in misery," said Osama Sabr, a Sunni in west Baghdad.

The fighting is threatening to disrupt Iraq's oil production, most of which comes from the Basra area, because workers in the oilfields dare not leave their homes.

The militia

The Mehdi Army

Armed wing of the Sadr movement. Muqtada al-Sadr's militia is divided, with one wing supporting the radical cleric's ceasefire while another has rejected it and continued attacks on Iraqi government forces and the British base at Basra aiport.

The Badr Brigade

Armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The Badr Brigade has been involved in numerous clashes with the Mehdi Army and appears not to be the target of the current offensive by the Iraqi government forces. The group has organised "spontaneous" demonstrations against General Mohan and General Jalil.

The Fadhila

A political party and armed group with a localised powerbase. The governor of Basra is a member of the party, and it controls a significant proportion of the region's oil supply.

Secret Cells

Said to be armed and trained by Iran and allegedly carrying out attacks ordered by Tehran.

Click here to have your say

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones