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Iraq implodes as Shia fights Shia
Wednesday, March 26, 2008 : A new civil war is threatening to explode in Iraq as American-backed Iraqi government forces fight Shia militiamen for control of Basra and parts of Baghdad.
Heavy fighting engulfed Iraq's two largest cities and spread to other towns yesterday as the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, gave fighters of the Mehdi Army, led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 72 hours to surrender their weapons.
The gun battles between soldiers and militiamen, who are all Shia Muslims, show that Iraq's majority Shia community – which replaced Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime – is splitting apart for the first time.
Mr Sadr's followers believe the government is trying to eliminate them before elections in southern Iraq later this year, which they are expected to win.
Mortars and rockets launched from Mehdi Army-controlled districts of Baghdad struck the Green Zone, the seat of American power in Iraq, for the third day yesterday, seriously wounding three Americans. Two rockets hit the parking lot of the Iraqi cabinet. The mixed area of al-Mansur in west Baghdad, where shops had begun to reopen in recent months, was deserted yesterday as Mehdi Army fighters were rumoured among local people to be moving in from the nearby Shia stronghold of Washash. "We expect an attack by the Shia in spite of the Americans being spread over Sunni districts to defend them," said a Sunni resident.
Forty people have been killed and at least 200 injured in Basra in the last two days of violence. In the town of Hilla, south of Baghdad, 11 people were killed and 18 injured yesterday by a US air strike called in support of Iraqi forces following street battles with Shia militia members in the city's Thawra neighbourhood. In Baghdad, 14 have been killed and 140 wounded.Read More
Wednesday, March 26, 2008 : Britain's exit strategy from Iraq is in danger of unravelling amid the fires and destruction in Basra and the bloody internecine Shia strife spreading across the land.
The withdrawal of British troops from the country depends on the success of Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furayji, the Iraqi commander leading the battle against the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. But Lt-Gen Mohan is in a precarious position, with reports suggesting he may be sacked.
At the same time, there are growing calls from Washington for British troops to go back into Basra city to help the Iraqi forces defeat Mr Sadr's Shia militia.
The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is said to be under tremendous pressure from some of his advisers to dismiss the charismatic and controversial Lt-Gen Mohan, a key figure in the deal under which British forces withdrew from Basra city, and who is regarded as the UK's main ally in Iraq.
The head of the police force, Major-General Jalil Khalaf, who is strongly backed by the British, is also said to be under a threat of dismissal, adding to the dismay in London. For the time being, Lt-Gen Mohan remains at his post as his troops continue fighting.
Another British soldier was killed yesterday – the 176th since the 2003 invasion – fighting alongside US forces against Shia militias in Baghdad, in a spiral of violence which began with the assault on the Mehdi Army in Basra early on Tuesday.
According to senior sources, the offensive was launched three months before Lt-Gen Mohan had wanted it to, and despite him warning that going in too early would result in the fighting spreading to other Shia strongholds. It was not the first time the general had been at odds with the Baghdad government. Mr Maliki had considered removing him from his post four weeks ago, but desisted after lobbying by the British.Read More