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Fighting Rages for Control of Oil-Hub Basra

BY Admin  March 25, 2008 at 3:30 PM EDT

Iraqi police hold position in Basra; AP photo

Rival factions of Iraq’s Shiite majority and criminal
gangs are competing for control of the southern oil hub, considered the center
of the national economy. Fighting began at dawn as Iraqi troops and police
launched a major crackdown on the armed groups.

Police and hospital officials reported that at least 22
people had been killed and 58 wounded in the clashes, The Associated Press
reported.

Unrest appeared to threaten to spread to other Iraq
cities as well. The Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad
– a hub of power for al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — was cordoned off by Iraqi troops
as the Basra
fighting raged, The New York Times reported.

Sadr warned in a statement that he would launch protests and
a nationwide strike if attacks against members of his movement and “poor
people” are not halted.

“We demand that religious and political leaders
intervene to stop the attacks on poor people. We call on all Iraqis to launch
protests across all the provinces. If the government does not respect these demands,
the second step will be general civil disobedience in Baghdad and the Iraqi provinces.”

The cleric in August ordered his militia to observe a
ceasefire following bloody fighting in the shrine city of Karbala
blamed on his fighters, which were involved in two rebellions against U.S. forces in
2004.

But al-Sadr’s allies have grown increasingly angry over
raids and detentions against them by U.S.
and Iraqi forces, who insist the crackdown only affects rogue elements loyal to
Iran.
The cleric’s headquarters in Najaf ordered field commanders with his Mahdi Army
militia to go on maximum alert and prepare “to strike the occupiers” -
a term used to describe U.S. forces – and their Iraqi allies, a militia officer
told the AP.

The U.S. military says the seven-month-old ceasefire
with the Mahdi Army is one of the main factors contributing to a 60 percent
drop in violence in Iraq
since last June, according to Reuters.

On Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Basra with his top
security advisers to review operations.

“Basra
is subjected to unjust attacks and many parties from inside and outside are
taking part in this. The attacks target the security and stability of the
city,” Maliki said, according to the AP.

The city has since become the scene of a bitter turf war
between the Mahdi Army, the Badr organization allied to the Supreme Iraqi
Islamic Council of powerful politician Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, and the smaller
Shiite party, Fadhila, ahead of provincial elections in October.

Criminal gangs are also vying for control of lucrative
oil-smuggling routes.

The power struggle has been marked by assassinations and
kidnappings. The city’s police chief has escaped a number of attempts on his
life.

As part of the operation against the militias dubbed
“Charge of the Knights,” authorities imposed an indefinite 10 p.m. to
6 a.m. curfew in Basra
and the central-southern Shiite cities of Kut, Samawa, Nasiriyah and Hilla.

Security in Basra
had declined well before the British handed over responsibility for the region to
Iraqi forces on Dec. 16. British troops remained at their base at the airport
outside Basra
and were not involved in the ground fighting Tuesday, according to the British
Ministry of Defense.

After touring Basra
on Monday, Maliki vowed his government would restore order, saying the city was
experiencing a “brutal campaign” by internal and external groups
targeting “innocent men and women.”

“This is accompanied by the smuggling of oil, weapons
and drugs … Basra
has become a city where civilians cannot even secure their lives and
property,” Maliki said in a statement.

Basra
housewife Um Hussein told Agence France-Presse the crackdown caught residents
unaware.

“It is a difficult situation. Not many shops or grocery
stores are open since the curfew and since the fighting began. We have not
stored household items at all. I hope the fighting ends quickly.”