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.
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The US military has so far insisted that only US advisers and so-called "transition teams" embedded with Iraqi troops are in Basra. Coalition aircraft are providing air cover and surveillance support.Skip to next paragraph
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Al Sharqiya TV, a private Iraqi station often critical of the Iraqi government, showed what it said were exclusive images of masked militiamen – some of them in military fatigues – parading in Humvees they had seized from Iraqi government forces in Basra. The words "Mahdi Army" and "Mahdi's Followers" were spray painted in black on the white-washed vehicles. There was also footage of what looked like the remains of burnt Iraqi Army vehicles. The militiamen chanted and danced, flashing victory signs.
Yahya al-Taiee, a Basra-based lawyer and member of the Sadr movement, said many Iraqi soldiers have surrendered themselves and their vehicles to the Mahdi Army. His claims could not be immediately verified.
"The fight will go on until the end. We will do whatever Sayyed [an honorific] Moqtada orders," Mr. Taiee said, as the sound of explosions echoed in Hay al-Hussein, one of the militia's Basra strongholds.
A rare interview with Sadr is scheduled to be broadcast on Al Jazeera Saturday. He has been out of public view since May of last year.
Basra residents contacted say they fear a prolonged battle. Many have been without water or electricity since Tuesday. In some areas, hospitals and medical care was unavailable. Food was also running out.
"It's all a grab for oil and power. They couldn't care less about what happens to people," grumbled a man interviewed in the Basra neighborhood of Junaina. He gave his name as Abu Hussein.
Violence in Basra has spread to parts of the capital and other towns and cities between Baghdad and the southern oil city. Since Wednesday, at least 60 people have been killed in violence in Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad.
The Associated Press cited police officials as saying that 40 gunmen had been killed and 75 others wounded in clashes in Kut, southeast of Baghdad.
In Baghdad itself, fighting involving US and Iraqi forces continued for a second day in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army militia's stronghold, with at least 40 people reported killed. Gunmen kidnapped Tahseen al-Shaikhly, an Iraqi civilian spokesman for Baghdad security operations, after killing three of his bodyguards and torching his house in the neighborhood of Ameen, a Mahdi Army stronghold in southeastern Baghdad.
Salvos of rockets and mortars, mostly originating from Sadr City, also continued to slam into the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the US Embassy and the Iraqi government.
In the Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad, the location of a revered Shiite shrine, thousands of Sadr supporters marched through the streets as police stood back, apparently concerned about a violent response. Small, angry mobs broke away from the main demonstration and burned photos of Maliki against an image of a US flag.
"After Saddam's infidel regime collapsed ... many parties pretending to have been in the opposition and to [be speaking] in the name of the oppressed climbed to the top on our shoulders. After they have achieved their goals they became mere slaves and puppets in the hands of the occupier," Mazen al-Saadi, one of the turbaned clerics leading the march, told the crowds. "We call for the ouster of Maliki and his government."
"No, no to America," screamed the crowd.