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British 'helpless' as violence rises in southern Iraq
British forces are facing rising violence among Shia Muslim factions in southern Iraq, but are powerless to contain it, military and diplomatic sources have told The Independent on Sunday. Both British and Iraqi authorities were seeking to play down the situation, they added.
The hidden political and factional tensions in the British zone of Iraq, particularly in Basra, were highlighted by a car bomb in the centre of the country's second city on Friday. The local police said 10 were killed and 15 wounded. Hospital sources said at least five bodies were brought in. But the provincial governor, embroiled in a bitter dispute with the police chief, insisted only two people were killed. As violent incidents have increased recently, political leaders in other southern cities have also tried to minimise casualty figures.
In Baghdad the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is due to present a national reconciliation plan to parliament today, aimed at reducing sectarian violence and defusing a significant portion of the Sunni insurgency, although Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters such as al-Qa'ida are excluded. There are question- marks over the plan, but it will do nothing to heal tensions among Shias in their southern heartland.
Last week, as the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, was declaring that the withdrawal of British forces from parts of Iraq was evidence of "mission accomplished", the senior British commander in the country disclosed that the security situation in Basra had deteriorated.
Lieutenant General Nick Houghton told the Commons defence committee: "There is a worrying amount of violence and murder carried out between rival Shia factions. There is no doubt that it has got worse of late, due to the protracted period of talks to form the government."
Since a spate of bomb attacks against them last autumn, British forces have largely kept out of the centre of Basra. Much of the police force in the south has been taken over by Shia militias who often clash with one another as well as intimidating ordinary people and attacking what is left of the Sunni community in the south.