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IRAQ: Basra officials warn of rising sectarian violence

BAGHDAD, 23 May 2006 (IRIN) - More than 100 civilians have been killed since April in sectarian and political violence in the once relatively calm southern city of Basra, some 600km southeast of Baghdad, according to police sources.

"Seventy-five civilians were killed in April, while another 40 have been killed so far in May," said police Col. Lt. Abdul-Karim al-Zaidi. "All of them were victims of assassinations and sectarian strife."

Basra, under the control of UK military forces since the 2003 US-led invasion, has until now been seen as one of the country's most stable regions. The UK currently has some 8,000 troops based in and around the majority-Shi'ite metropolis, Iraq's second largest city after the capital.

Violence reached a climax last week when a bomb went off at the home of Basra Chief of Police Maj. Gen. Hussein al-Saad, who later complained that policemen's religious and ethnic orientations often override their loyalty to the state. "We can't impose full control on policemen," al-Saad said. "Most of them are loyal to religious and political parties and personalities and not to the country."

According to experts, a power struggle is emerging between the three mainstream Shi'ite factions in Basra: the Supreme Council for Islamic revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite party; the Islamic Fadhila party; and the al-Mahdi army, led by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Last week, Basra Governor Mohamed Musbih al-Wali, a member of the Islamic Fadhila party, accused religious authorities of encouraging sectarian strife. Al-Wali went on to demand the removal of several local security officials, alleging they had failed to curtail political and sectarian violence. "Religious leaders are using simple people to create sectarian strife by threatening, kidnapping and killing others, especially from the Sunni community," al-Wali said. Since then, a local police station was attacked and the local offices of SCIRI were torched.

According to Peter Harling, an Amman-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, at least two major actors have an interest in prolonging violence. "Muqtada al-Sadr has vocally distanced himself from any form of violence, but he's still benefiting from sporadic acts of 'resistance', which are well-known to be perpetrated by the al-Mahdi army," said Harling. "Iran, too, clearly sees an advantage in a level of violence sufficient to keep the coalition bogged down - but it wouldn't want to get blatantly involved."

Harling went on to say that the situation in Basra was being aggravated further by a combination of factors. "Basra is a border town and a regional capital, in which Iran, al-Sadr and others have major vested interests," he said. "And the British approach appears relatively permissive to those behind the violence."

Meanwhile, the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), a Sunni hard-line clerical body, said that some 1,200 Sunni families had been forced to leave Basra as a result of threats by militant groups. "About 25 Sunnis were killed by these armed groups, which are affiliated with religious parties, this month alone," said Sheikh Abdul-Razaq al-Dosari, a senior AMS cleric.

On 6 May, a UK military helicopter was shot down, killing all four soldiers aboard. Soon afterwards, clashes erupted between UK forces and Shi'ite militia members, in which five Iraqis were killed.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and recently-appointed Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki on 22 May discussed Basra's deteriorating security situation. The two heads of state later agreed to send a high-level Iraqi delegation to the city with a mandate to improve security.

... Payvand News - 5/25/06 ... --

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