BASRA - Oil-rich Basra in the south of Iraq is getting caught up in an increasingly
more fierce battle between warring Shi'ite groups.
Basra, the second largest city in Iraq with a population of 2.6 million, is
the capital city of the southern Basra province, and Iraq's main port. The largest
explored oil reserves in the country lie within the province.
A group led by anti-occupation Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who recently ordered
his politicians to quit the Iraqi government in a defiance of the U.S.-led occupation,
has said his group will no more accept Basra Governor Mohammad al-Wai'ili because
he is a member of the Shi'ite al-Fadhila Party.
Al-Fadhila withdrew from the ruling Shi'ite political coalition in March. Al-Fadhila
leaders said they refused to participate in sectarian politics. The party has
declared it will continue as an independent bloc.
Despite the fact that both groups have ordered withdrawal of their representatives
from the Iraqi government, they remain at odds.
The Sadr group is vying for greater control of cities in southern Iraq, and
is suspected of ties to the Iranian government. Al-Fadhila opposes this policy.
The governor also rejects Iran-backed meddling within Iraq's Shi'ite political
Sadr has a huge following in Iraq, estimated in the millions, and his militia
is one of the most powerful in the country. Al-Fadhila has a smaller base, armed
But the positions on Iran are not all clear and consistent, and several positions
are taken in response to personalities rather than policies.
Sadr has been at odds with Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who
has close ties to Iranian religious leaders. The Fadhila Party is no friend
either to Sistani, who continues to bless the disintegrating Iraqi government.
But some broad similarities of position have not eased differences between
the two groups.
"Our party offices have received threats of attacks, and we take such
threats seriously," a senior al-Fadhila leader told IPS on condition of
anonymity. "It is all because we would not continue the mistake of dividing
government posts by sectarian standards."
The party says it is working for a unified Iraq, and accused the government,
which until recently had Sadr representatives, of playing sectarian politics
in Iraq. Sadr also speaks for a unified Iraq, but his Mahdi Army continues to
attack Sunnis, particularly in Baghdad.
Muqtada al-Sadr recently called on his followers to demonstrate against the
Basra Governor. An estimated 2,000 people joined the demonstration, far fewer
than Sadr had expected.
"Those who follow the call of al-Sadr are not so many in Basra city,"
high school headmaster Muhammad Hussein told IPS. He blamed troublemakers on
all sides. "Only gangsters who are interested in looting the government's
property would benefit from the chaos."
The last few weeks have seen several clashes between armed men from each group.
In one instance gunmen believed to be from al-Sadr's Mahdi Army raided an office
of the al-Fadhila party.
"It is not our dispute," Kathum Fadhil from the port authority in
Basra told IPS. "It is simply a fight between thieves, so should we take
part in it?"
A statement from a group of Arab tribes in the south expressed support for
Grand Ayatollah al-Yaaqubi, religious advisor to al-Fadhila.
The tribes said they would back Yaaqubi against "Persian authority,"
referring to al-Sistani. Al-Yaaqubi is Iraqi, while al-Sistani moved to Najaf
from Iran in 1953.
Misgivings about Iranian meddling seem to be rising. "Iranians are crossing
the border to support their followers in Basra and other southern cities,"
a police officer in Basra told IPS. "They are doing their best to tear
this country apart so that they can keep the Americans busy in Iraq."
Local people say British occupation forces which are largely responsible for
security in southern Iraq, and particularly Basra, do not want to interfere
in the new political disputes.
"They (the British military) started with evicting our Sunni Arab brothers
and now they are turning against us," a Shi'ite tribal chief told IPS. "They
want the south of Iraq to be an easy bite for Iranians and their interests in
"Iran has always had an eye on our country, but their dream is too far
from coming to reality," 30-year-old Basra resident Jassim Alwan told IPS.
"We will fight them the same way we fought them before, and even harder."
But most people in Basra blame the U.S.-led occupation for the collapsing situation.
"They pretend that they are fighting terror, but they are cooperating
with Iranian terror in our cities," Ahmed, a member of the Ba'ath Party
in Basra told IPS. "There are daily assassinations against us and other
brothers who do not support the occupation, and the occupation forces are happy
Several Basra residents told IPS they expect the situation in the south to
get worse, and the divisions between the Shi'ite political parties to widen.
It is not certain who will be responsible for security. A senior British military
officer told reporters Monday that British forces in southern Iraq are expected
to shrink from the current 7,000 to just a few hundred within two years.
Plans to withdraw the British garrison in Basra are already well under way,
with two of the three bases closed. The remaining base at Basra Palace is under
continuing mortar attack. British military commanders say they want to close
it by this summer.
At least eight British soldiers have been killed this month, making it the
third deadliest month for the British military in Iraq since the occupation
began in April 2003. At least 142 British troops have been killed in Iraq.
(Inter Press Service)