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Iraq’s prime minister orders army to take control of Basra

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Knight Ridder Newspapers: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday ordered thousands of Iraqi troops to Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, to disarm the Shiite Muslim militias that have taken control there, a move that underscores how little of the country the central government in Baghdad has secured.
Knight Ridder Newspapers

By Nancy A. Youssef

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday ordered thousands of Iraqi troops to Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, to disarm the Shiite Muslim militias that have taken control there, a move that underscores how little of the country the central government in Baghdad has secured.

Al-Maliki said Iraq’s 10th Army Division would set up checkpoints and round up illegal weapons from the assortment of militias, gangs and tribes that had seized control in Basra. He said the state of emergency would last a month.

His declaration, issued in a nationally televised speech from Basra, came the same week that U.S. officials announced that they’d send another 1,500 troops from Kuwait to Anbar province in western Iraq in a renewed effort to wrest much of the province from the control of Sunni Muslim insurgents.

“This month is the month of security in Basra,” al-Maliki said in his address, flanked by a high-ranking government delegation. “We will beat with an iron fist on the heads of gangs who are manipulating security.”

Iraq’s violence has intensified in recent weeks, despite the country’s swelling security forces. A new Pentagon report released this week said 263,400 security force members had been trained so far.

But that’s done little to cut violence or hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops, whose number will grow to more than 135,000 with the arrival of the reinforcements from Kuwait. The report noted that the average number of weekly enemy attacks rose 13 percent from February to April, compared with the previous few months.

The Pentagon report, titled “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” called Iraq’s enemy elements resilient and complex and suggested little likelihood that they’ll be quelled soon. The report noted that the enemy includes the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias.

“To categorize the violence in Iraq as a single insurgency or a unified `opposition’ is both inaccurate and misleading,” the report said. “It is unlikely that the Coaltion and Iraq Security Forces will make progress against each of these violent factions at the same pace.”

Al-Maliki’s announcement was official recognition that violence in the Shiite south is far worse than previously acknowledged. At least 200 people have died in shootouts, kidnappings and executions in Basra in the last month, and British and local Iraqi officials told Knight Ridder recently that militias had largely taken control of police forces and other government institutions.

On Tuesday, the chairman of Basra’s provincial council, Nussaif Jassim al-Abaidi, said the mostly Shiite police forces themselves were undisciplined and corrupt.

Many officers “are more loyal to their parties than their jobs,” al-Abaidi said.

Whether sending in the army will help is unclear. The same Shiite militias that are competing for influence in Basra have infiltrated the security forces.

Basra’s most active militias, the Mahdi Army, loyal to fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, are closely allied with key members of the political coalition that put al-maliki in office.

Al-Maliki didn’t mention what steps would be taken to reduce Iranian assistance to the militias. While it’s not clear how involved Iran’s government is in aiding the groups, British and Iraqi officials in the south told Knight Ridder that money and weapons were reaching the militias from Iran and some militia members were training in Iran.

British officials said they thought that the Iranian assistance was an attempt to drive coalition forces from the area and pave the way for Iran-friendly clerical rule in southern Iraq.

Iran has close ties to many in al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government. Al-Maliki lived in Iran for several years after he went into exile in 1980 during the rule of Saddam Hussein. He also lived in Syria and Lebanon.

While some Sunni politicians expressed skepticism that al-Maliki is politically able to challenge the militias, initial Sunni response was muted.

Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni and one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, said al-Maliki’s initiative didn’t go far enough, and that more action was needed.

“There is a host of reforms that should go side by side,” al-Hashemi said. “If we all – the governor, the governorate’s council, political forces, tribes and religious figures – cooperate together, we will find, within a month’s time, that things are much better.”

During Saddam’s reign, Basra was one of Iraq’s most dynamic cities, known for its nightlife and bustling economy. After the U.S.-led invasion, when much of the country fell to violence, Basra was considered relatively stable, and U.S. officials often suggested that it would be one of the first areas to return to Iraqi control.

But militias were seeping into the populace, driving out minority Sunnis and calling for a more conservative province. The change became most notable when attacks on British forces spiked. In the last month, nine British service members have been killed, including five in a helicopter crash. British officials told Knight Ridder they suspect that an Iranian-supplied missile shot down the chopper.

Al-Maliki announced his plan as leaders were still debating who will lead the Defense and Interior ministries, which oversee the army and police, respectively.

He said a special committee would be appointed to oversee the Basra operation.

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