Shiite infighting rocks Iraq

9 dead after majority militias clash with police in southern province

December 25, 2006|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Molly Hennessy-Fiske,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Shiite militia fighters clashed with police yesterday in Samawa, a provincial capital in southern Iraq, transforming it into a lawless battleground and exposing rifts that increasingly divide Iraq's Shiite majority.

Nine people, including four police officers, have died in the violence gripping parts of Samawa since Friday, police said.

Yesterday, police, backed by Shiite tribal leaders, called in Iraqi army soldiers from nearby Diwaniya to help battle the militia. They closed entrances to the city, which is about 120 miles south of Baghdad, imposed a curfew and closed the schools as they traded fire.

The bulk of the death and destruction in Iraq this year has involved fighting between Shiites and the Sunni minority, which dominated the country under Saddam Hussein. But the violence in Samawa underscores the difficulty that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Shiite leaders have had in maintaining order among Shiites in a country where people's loyalties are divided among political parties, sects and tribes.

Conflicts within Shiite communities have troubled Baghdad and other parts of Iraq in recent weeks, but the violence has been particularly notable in Samawa, capital of the first province handed over by U.S.-led forces to Iraqi control.

At a news conference yesterday, Iraq's interior minister, Jawad Bolani, said police were restoring order in Samawa.

"People who try to create problems can appear in any city in the world," he said. "The important thing is that [security forces] are there to stop them."

Samawa police say they are battling a militia associated with the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but al-Sadr associates said yesterday that the militia involved in the fighting is an offshoot led by a local Shiite cleric feuding with rival tribes.

The conflict here began Dec. 1, when gunmen attempted to rescue detainees from a local prison, killing three people, according to local hospital staff.

Militia leaders agreed to a cease-fire with police and provincial officials two days later, then apparently broke the agreement Friday after clashing with police at checkpoints near local mosques.

Qusai Abdul Wahab, a member of al-Sadr's party in parliament, blamed the latest conflict on local police, who he said provoked militias Friday by opening fire on Shiite worshipers as they celebrated a religious anniversary. Wahab called the police "provocative and intimidating."

"They are dealing with people as if they are still in the Saddam era," he said.

Jaafar Abdul Razzaq, a spokesman from al-Sadr's Samawa office, said the militia would not stop fighting until the police release some 30 militia members who have been detained since Friday. Police officials said they were negotiating another cease-fire with militia leaders.

Saad Aziz, a Shiite member of the Samawa city council, said local Shiites are divided by tribe and political party, with some loyal to al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc, others to another leading Shiite party, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.

"The Ziad tribe itself is now divided among those who support SCIRI and those who are supporting al-Sadr," Aziz said, referring to one of the area's major clans. "There is now internal fighting inside the tribe itself."

Abdul Hussein Dhalimi, the acting governor of Muthana province and a SCIRI member, said he met with provincial leaders and delegates from the nearby holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, to "settle things down in the province."

"The security forces are controlling the situation. The city is under their control," he said, adding that local leaders will not negotiate with the militia until they disarm.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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