BAGHDAD, Sep 11 (IPS) - Clashes between rival Shia militas in Kerbala have spread across southern Iraq and Baghdad, adding a new dimension to sectarian violence.
Clashes between the Mehdi Army militia of Shia anti-occupation cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organisation militia of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) erupted over recent days in the holy city of Kerbala, 100 km southwest of Baghdad.
Kerbala, with a population of about half a million, is a holy city, particularly for the Shias, as it is home to the tomb of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
The shrine of Imam Hussein is a place of pilgrimage for many Shia Muslims.
The recent clashes between the two powerful militias, which left at least 52 people dead and over 200 wounded during the pilgrimage, and led to curfew over the entire city, mark intensifying fighting throughout southern Iraq.
This was the first time that a major pilgrimage has been stopped in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had gathered in the city to mark the birth anniversary of the 12th and last Shia imam.
"Even Saddam did not stop our pilgrimage, but look at those who say they are our protectors, killing us in cold blood," Kathum Hussein, whose wife was killed when Iraqi police opened fire, told IPS in Baghdad. "The guards who get their huge salaries to protect us just started shooting as if we were insects, not human beings."
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As the fighting spread to Baghdad and other cities around southern Iraq, National Security Advisor Muaffaq al-Rubaii told reporters, "It is the Saddamists and the foreign fighters who did it, yet it is true that the security forces were not well organised."
Many Iraqis are outraged at the government's inability to contain the crisis. They also say the government is making misleading statements.
"The ones who started the shooting were the shrine guards who belong to the Sistani militias (Badr Organization)," Iraqi political analyst Waleed Ubaidy told IPS.
The fighting spread immediately to most Shia dominated cities in Iraq, including the Shia areas of Baghdad. Dozens were killed in fighting in Baghdad neighbourhoods like Sadr City, Shula and Kadhimiya.
Just after the clashes broke out in Kerbala, the Mehdi Army attacked several of the SIIC offices in Baghdad. At least seven offices were set ablaze by Mehdi Army members in reprisal attacks for what happened in Kerbala. Similar raids on SIIC offices came in at least five other cities in the south.
Not long after the curfew was imposed over Kerbala, Sadr ordered a six-month suspension of operations of his militia.
"We declare the freezing of al-Mehdi army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months," read a statement from the cleric.
Iraqi security officials in Baghdad blamed the militia for attacking the men guarding the shrines in Kerbala. The guards are believed to be members of the Badr Organisation, as the SIIC controls the shrines.
Sporadic fallout of the violence has continued. A representative of Sadr was beaten up and arrested by guards of Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki. The Sadr movement has accused Maliki of taking sides with the Badr Organisation.
Maliki sacked the commander of the Kerbala police operations' centre Major General Saleh Khazal al-Maliki, and decided to run the centre through his own forces. He also sacked 1,500 other police officers for incompetence, according to the spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, Major General Mohammad al-Askari.
IPS had reported on clashes at Basra in April between the Sadr milita and militants loyal to the Shia al-Fadhila party. Clashes between those groups continue, besides those that have surfaced between the Medhi Army and the Badr Organisation.
"This government failed us, and any similar government that is run by these parties will not bring back safety to Iraq," Salih Allawi from the Shula neighbourhood of Baghdad told IPS. "After leading us into Shia-Sunni fighting, they are tearing the Shia community apart. They have made us feel sorry for losing Saddam Hussein's regime, when security prevailed in this country."
(*Ali, a correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)
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