Violence erupts in Basra as Iraqi forces battle Mehdi Army

The Iraqi army is fighting the Mehdi Army Shia militia in the streets of Basra after the government launched its most serious offensive to gain control of the southern oil city.

Clouds of dark smoke rose over Basra 340 miles south of Baghdad as Iraqi soldiers tried to take control of the main roads while black-clad militiamen fought back from the alleyways. "There are clashes in the streets," said Jamil, a resident of the city. "Bullets are coming from everywhere and we can hear the sound of rocket explosions."

The fighting was spreading across Shia areas of Iraq as the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army, called for a campaign of civil disobedience in which shops, businesses, schools and universities would close down.

In the Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City, home to two million people in Baghdad, police and army checkpoints were simply abandoned and militiamen took over. In a statement read out by a senior aide yesterday, Mr Sadr called on Iraqis to stage sit-ins all over the country and added that he would declare "a civil revolt" if attacks by US and Iraqi security forces continued. Civil disobedience is different in Iraq from most countries, since most protesters are armed or have weapons available.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has moved to Basra, where he is said to be supervising the operation, in which 22 people have been killed and over 100 wounded so far. It is unlikely, however, that the Iraqi army assault would have been launched without the support of the American military, whose jets and helicopters are providing air support.

The Sadrist headquarters in the Shia holy city of Najaf has ordered the Mehdi Army field commanders to be on maximum alert and prepare "to strike the occupiers", which means attacking US forces. If they do so it would mean the end of the ceasefire declared by Mr Sadr on 29 August last year and renewed in February.

It is this truce which US commanders have said contributed significantly to the fall in violence in Iraq over the past six months. Rockets fired from Shia areas of Baghdad pounded the American-protected Green Zone yesterday.

Basra has been increasingly controlled by Shia militias since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. British forces were never able to establish their authority over the city and finally handed over security control to Iraq on 16 December last year, saying that the British presence was provoking rather than reducing violence.

Mr Maliki has declared that the government is intending to restore law and order in Basra but the Sadrist movement, the most powerful Shia mass movement, will see the offensive as an attempt by its Shia rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to displace them. If there is an all-out confrontation, the Iraqi army might well look to support from the United States and Britain, initially through air strikes. So far British forces have not been involved in the fighting.

The US has been eager for the central government to regain control of Basra, which sits on top of Iraq's oil reserves and is also close to the American army's main supply line that runs west of the city up the main highway from Kuwait to Baghdad. Basra has hitherto been run by competing local warlords, each of whom has been seeking to gain control of valuable local concessions and rackets such as fuel and the ports of Basra and Umm Qasr. One Iraqi businessman who dispatched a container from Umm Qasr port to Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan says he paid $500 (£250) in transport costs and $3,000 in bribes to ensure safe passage.

Mr Sadr has been keen to avoid an all-out military confrontation with the US army or Iraqi units backed by the Americans ever since he fought the US Marines in Najaf in 2004. Although his Mehdi Army militiamen suffered heavy losses because of the American force's superior arms, they showed that they were prepared to fight to the end. In the warren of slums in Basra, they could do the same and they could also spread the fighting across the overwhelmingly Shia south of Iraq.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Life and Style
life
Sport
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
football
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
News
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
News
people
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

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn