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Basra fight widens rift among Shiite factions

In Baghdad Thursday, thousands protested the Iraqi government's battle with the Mahdi Army militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor, Abdul-Karim al-SamerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2008

Mahdi Army fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stood in Basra, Iraqi, on Thursday. Fighting raged in the oil-rich city for the third straight day and the militiamen continued to control the streets.


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Baghdad and Basra, Iraq

Moqtada al-Sadr's powerful Shiite movement upped the ante Thursday in its battle with Iraqi government forces. Militiamen loyal to the young cleric refused to back down in their fight in the southern oil-rich city of Basra and his foot soldiers in Baghdad took to the streets in a show of force, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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The clock continues to tick away on Mr. Maliki's 72-hour ultimatum for Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia to lay down its weapons in Basra or face all-out assault. At the moment, witnesses in Basra say there appears to be no sign of any letup in fighting between government forces and the Shiite gunmen, who are said to still control 75 percent of the city.

"We have made up our minds and we have waged this war and we will continue till the end. No retreat, no compromise, no accords," said Maliki during a meeting with local tribal leaders in Basra. He remains in the city to oversee the battle there that has killed at least 50 people so far.

The continuation of fighting marks a serious escalation in a long-simmering battle between Iraq's rival Shiite factions that pits Sadr, whose influence extends into key government ministries and spans across Baghdad and nine southern provinces, against factions allied to Maliki's Dawa Party such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its affiliate the Badr Organization.

The fight in Basra is also having global implications. After news broke that one of Iraq's main oil export pipelines from Basra exploded, cutting at least a third of the exports from the city that provides 80 percent of the government's revenue, oil prices jumped more than $1 a barrel, Reuters reported.

However, according to Jamal Hamed al-Fraih, spokesman for the South Oil Company, it was a pipeline feeding crude oil to one of the main refineries in the province that was struck. Mr. Fraih said that a fire that raged for hours Thursday has come under control but that now the main refinery of Shuaiba has come to a standstill because of a power outage.

"Oil exports are still flowing but they are less than a few days ago," he said adding that oil exports from Basra, Iraq's main outlet, had been averaging 1.5 million barrels a day before the start of fighting.

Fraih also said the company is bracing for the worst. He said all administrative offices, including the headquarters in the city, were closed with extra security forces mobilized to protect them. "Yes there is a great risk that company property maybe attacked or looted."

Elsewhere in Basra, one of Saddam Hussein's former regime palaces – occupied by British forces until September when they pulled out to an airbase on the outskirts of the city – now serves as one of the main bases of Iraqi government forces and was hit with heavy mortar fire.

The US-funded Arab television station Al Hurra reported that a contingent of US Marines was now in Basra's city center and involved mainly in sniper operations. This could not be immediately confirmed with the US military. But several residents reported that they saw snipers posted on roof tops especially in the neighborhood of Tamimyah.