TOPICS > Nation

Mahdi Militia Temporarily Seizes Control of Iraqi City

October 20, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: That escalating violence in southern Iraq. Jeffrey Brown spoke by telephone earlier today with James Hider of the London Times in Baghdad.

JEFFREY BROWN: James, the latest report we had was that Mahdi Army militiamen had seized control of Amarah and then withdrawn. Can you add to that, in terms of the immediate situation, whether fighting continues, and who’s in control of the city now?

JAMES HIDER, The London Times: The fighting does appeared to have calmed down this evening. The Iraqi government has sent in about 600 extra soldiers and policemen to back up the police who fled their police stations earlier in the day.

The result seems to be partly because Muqtada al-Sadr has sent some envoys asking his people to restrain themselves and to calm the situation down. Also, the government in Baghdad sent a ministerial-level team to negotiate a cease-fire.

JEFFREY BROWN: Set the scene a little bit for us; tell us about this town. This is a city that British forces left only two months ago. Why did they leave? And what’s happened there since?

JAMES HIDER: Well, the British left their camp, called Abu Naji, which was in the center of Amarah, in August. They said that they were repositioning to go along the Iranian border and have desert patrols along the border to stop weapons smugglers coming across from Iran.

In fact, they were being mortared heavily every day. I spoke to a British soldier who said that basically their camp was like a bull’s eye in the middle of Amarah, and they were being mortared from a distance of nine or ten kilometers.

So they were taking constant fire for a very long period of time. British officers have in the past compared this to the most sustained fire that British forces have received since the Korean War, so they’ve pulled out. They’re now down on the Iranian border patrolling the desert.

But that was claimed as a victory by the Mahdi Army militia, who had been there firing these mortars, and that has certainly encouraged the activities of the militias in the area. When the British pulled out of their camp, the camp was basically stripped by looters. And the Iraqi forces who had moved in did nothing to prevent them.

And this has all emboldened the militias to try their hand, and then this latest dispute has actually triggered a full-out battle.

Fighting between sects

JEFFREY BROWN: So tell us about this latest dispute. What set it off? And it is, in fact, not just one militia, but it sounds like it's several Shiite militias fighting each other?

JAMES HIDER: Well, it's extremely complex, because the Mahdi Army that has been fighting its way into these police stations and destroying them is beholden to Muqtada al-Sadr, who's the cleric who fought the Americans in two major battles in 2004.

But the police force are mostly from the Badr Brigade. Now, they're a militia which is run by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Now, both the Sadrists and the Supreme Council are the major blocs in the government of Nouri al-Maliki. If either one withdrew, the government would collapse, and the political process would effectively come to an end. So it's an extremely difficult situation to resolve.

But what happened was, on Wednesday, a roadside bomb killed Qassim al-Tamimi, who is the Badr head of the police intelligence. He was killed by a roadside bomb. The Badr core believed that the Mahdi Army was responsible for his death, so they kidnapped the brother of the Mahdi Army commander in the area.

And the Mahdi Army basically said, "You have to give him back, or we'll come to get you." And there was no resolution to that, so hundreds of fighters came into Amarah. They took over the police station. The police fled. The police stations were destroyed.

We're hearing varying accounts whether they were just burned. Some people say that explosives were put in the police stations and they were flattened. And then fighting broke out across the city and, for a while there, the Mahdi Army did appear to be in control.

British troops may enter Basra

JEFFREY BROWN: There have been reports that British forces are standing by to perhaps go back in. What do you know about that, and who would make that decision?

JAMES HIDER: I spoke to the British army spokesman in Basra this afternoon. He said that they were putting together a force in Basra to go in. This would be about 500 men with the helicopters. He said that they were waiting for the Iraqi army to call for help explicitly; that call hasn't come yet.

It does appear that the Iraqi forces have managed to restore some semblance of order in Amarah at the moment, but the British forces are there. They're waiting for the word to go in. That would be extremely difficult.

Obviously, they could fight their way back in, but any losses they sustained would be extremely embarrassing, given the situation with the British forces at the moment, after the chief of staff last week said that Britain should be considering pulling out of southern Iraq and that the British forces exacerbated the situation. So that could be an extremely awkward position for the British to find themselves in.

Politics in southern Iraq

JEFFREY BROWN: And how representative is the situation in Amarah to the general situation in the south, where British forces were in control?

JAMES HIDER: Well, the problem with Amarah and in the south in general is that the politics operate from several different levels. You have political parties with their militias; some of them are infiltrating into the police forces. And some of them are tribal allegiances, as well. And you can have a whole tribe allied to one particular police chief.

So when these disputes break out, when somebody is maybe assassinated for political reasons, it becomes a tribal problem, as well. And these are very difficult to resolve.

This is no exception in the south, what is happening. Perhaps the scale is different, but since the fall of Saddam, tribes have been settling their dispute by assassinations and kidnappings, and it's quite standard, if somebody is killed, then a member of that tribe will be kidnapped and held until the killers are handed over. And that's partly what's happening here.

But what we're also seeing, which is extremely worrying for the south, is Shia-on-Shia violence, an extremely oil-rich region in the south. The government voted last week for a federal law that would steer devolution into autonomous regions, and the south would be Shia dominated. It's mostly Shia population. And it would control a vast amount of oil.

So what we may be seeing here is a foreshadowing of any future power struggle in the south over who controls the oil revenue. This is also a smuggling town. There's a lot of money coming through from western, from oil smuggling, from drug smuggling. Amarah is on a main route between Basra and Baghdad. It's a strategically important route, so this may be a power struggle that is developing in the south between the two main Shia blocs.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. James Hider of the Times of London, thank you very much.

JAMES HIDER: Thank you.