BAGHDAD - Clashes between rival Shia militias in Karbala 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 Moqtada
al-Sadr and the Badr Organization militia of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council
(SIIC) erupted over recent days in the holy city of Karbala, 60 mi. southwest
Karbala, 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
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."
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 organized."
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 neighborhoods
like Sadr City, Shula, and Kadhimiya.
Just after the clashes broke out in Karbala, 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 Karbala Similar raids
on SIIC offices came in at least five other cities in the south.
Not long after the curfew was imposed over Karbala, Sadr ordered a six-month
suspension of operations of his militia.
"We declare the freezing of 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 Karbala. The guards are believed to be members of the
Badr Organization, as the SIIC controls the shrines.
Sporadic fallout from the violence has continued. A representative of Sadr
was beaten up and arrested by guards of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Sadr movement has accused Maliki of taking sides with the Badr Organization
Maliki sacked the commander of the Karbala police operations' center, Maj.
Gen. Saleh Khazal al-Maliki, and decided to run the center through his own forces.
He also sacked 1,500 other police officers for incompetence, according to the
spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Maj. Gen. Mohammad al-Askari.
IPS had reported on clashes at Basra in April between the Sadr militia 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 Organization
"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 neighborhood 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."
(Inter Press Service)