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
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Flat out: Michael Flatley will return to the stage in his show Lord Of The Dance
Michael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux / Redhat / Solaris / Puppet / SAN

£65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape