Iraq Shi'ite militias fight as splits emerge
- From: Voter <voter1@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 25 Aug 2005 00:22:21 GMT
Iraq Shi'ite militias fight as splits emerge
By Luke Baker
Fighting broke out in Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf late on Wednesday
between rival Shi'ite militias, kindling fears of a renewed uprising by
radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr against the U.S.-backed government.
Hours after a bloody show of force by Sunni insurgents on the streets of
Baghdad, it raised the prospect of Iraqis across the sectarian divide
opposing the constitution the Shi'ite-led government is expected to force
through parliament on Thursday.
At least eight people were killed and dozens wounded, health officials
said, in street battles in Najaf involving pro- government fighters and
supporters of Sadr, who has joined Sunni Arab leaders in denouncing the
constitution as divisive.
Washington has pressed hard for the charter to be adopted as part of its
strategy for eventually pulling out its troops.
The Interior Minister dispatched police commandos to Najaf and announced a
curfew in the city on state television.
A spokesman for Sadr warned of a "general call to arms" if rival groups did
not apologize for what he called an attack on Sadr's office in Najaf. His
Mehdi Army was banned after U.S. troops crushed two uprisings a year ago,
but it has not disarmed.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari appealed for calm in a live televised
address after midnight and condemned the attack.
Speaking with unaccustomed urgency and force, he said: "Peace must reign.
This language of violence cannot be permitted in the new Iraq ... The gun
and the language of the gun are finished."
His health minister, a Sadr supporter, said eight people were killed when a
protest outside the movement's office in Najaf turned violent. Another
official said the office was burned down. The minister said he would
suspend his involvement with the government until the issue was resolved.
Later, Baghdad police said armed Sadr followers attacked offices of the
Badr movement, allied to a powerful Shi'ite Islamist party in the ruling
coalition, in three Shi'ite districts. Witnesses saw at least one office
that was occupied.
Sadr supporters joined Sunni demonstrators in a protest march on Wednesday,
part of efforts to mobilize a blocking vote against the new charter at a
referendum expected in October.
Witnesses said up to 500 armed men loyal to Sadr gathered around his Najaf
office following street battles that broke out after dark in the city, 160
km (100 miles) south of Baghdad.
Officials said Sadr would speak there shortly.
Hundreds of armed Sadr followers rallied at the movement's office in Iraq's
second city of Basra, in the south.
Sadr's spokesman blamed the violence on the police and "another group," an
apparent reference to the Badr militia, linked to the Supreme Council for
the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a key element of the coalition
The head of the Badr movement denied any involvement.
Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabor, a SCIRI member, sent police commandos
Rival groups say many former Badr fighters have joined the U.S.-trained
police force in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
Disputes have emerged between Shi'ite groups ahead of the constitutional
referendum in October and an election scheduled for December. The
government has disappointed the hopes of many in the Shi'ite majority who
expected rapid improvements in their security and prosperity after decades
of Sunni dominance.
Sadr is young for such an influential cleric but derives strength from poor
Shi'ites and his late father's religious aura. An outspoken Iraqi
nationalist, he has maintained political ties with Sunni leaders. His
followers join Sunnis in complaining SCIRI and other formerly exiled
pro-government groups of being too close to non-Arab, Shi'ite Iran.
In mid-afternoon in Baghdad dozens of insurgents ambushed police in the
Sunni stronghold of Hay al-Jamia. At least six police vehicles were set
ablaze as a group of about 40 guerrillas, some with faces masked, fired
rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons in a brazen assault on a
police checkpoint and on reinforcements who arrived to help.
"It was raining bullets," said a police official.
Police said 10 civilians and three policemen died. A police source said 43
people were wounded.
Parliament is expected to vote on Thursday on the new constitution although
no sitting has yet been scheduled.
When it was presented just ahead of a Monday deadline, the vote was put off
for three days, apparently to help tempers cool after Sunnis said they
would demand further major changes.
A No vote by a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq's 18 provinces would
veto the constitution, however.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani held another day of talks with leaders from
the Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish communities on Wednesday to try to forge a
consensus on the charter, but he looked unlikely to succeed before the vote
Sunni leaders said they were determined to stand firm against a document
they argue would devolve too much power to potentially oil-rich regions
controlled by Shi'ites and Kurds.
(Additional reporting by Mussab al-Khairalla, Aseel Kami, Alastair
Macdonald and Hiba Moussa in Baghdad, Khaled Farhan in Najaf and Abdel
Razzak Hamed in Basra)
Copyright © 2005 Reuters Limited.
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