News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIraqi and British troops clash with Shiite militias

Iraqi and British troops clash with Shiite militias

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New York Times: Iraqi security forces and British troops fought Shiite militias and tribesmen in two major cities south of Baghdad on Wednesday in sustained battles that left two policemen and a dozen militiamen dead. The violence underscored the tenuous grip the Iraqi government maintains even in regions not under the sway of Sunni Arab insurgents. The New York Times

By PAUL von ZIELBAUER

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 16 — Iraqi security forces and British troops fought Shiite militias and tribesmen in two major cities south of Baghdad on Wednesday in sustained battles that left two policemen and a dozen militiamen dead. The violence underscored the tenuous grip the Iraqi government maintains even in regions not under the sway of Sunni Arab insurgents.

Also on Wednesday, as American and Iraqi Army soldiers continued a security sweep through hostile neighborhoods in western Baghdad, bombings in other parts of the city killed 21 people and wounded 59 others.

Violent eruptions in Karbala, a Shiite holy city about 60 miles southwest of here, and Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, demonstrated the destabilizing power of internecine conflicts that have little to do with the anti-American insurgency or sectarian killings.

In Basra, a gun battle erupted between Iraqi Army troops and members of the dominant local tribe, the Bani Asad, apparently angered by the killing on Tuesday of a tribal leader, Faisal Raji al-Asadi, government officials in Basra said.

In a battle that lasted the better part of an hour, tribesmen clad in black clothing fired fusillades of bullets and grenades at the provincial government building, local police and government officials said, and eventually occupied the parts of the government complex.

“The building was in the hands of Bani Asad tribe,” an Iraqi government official in Basra said in a telephone interview, speaking over the sustained crackle of gunfire in the background. He said that the fighting, which killed six, including two policemen and two tribesmen, started because the tribe believed that the government was involved in Mr. Asadi’s killing.

A prominent member of the tribe who called himself Ayatollah al-Asadi suggested in an interview with Al Jazeera on Wednesday afternoon that British forces, which have struggled to maintain control of Basra in the midst of warring Shiite militias, may have been responsible for the assassination. Faisal Raji al-Asadi “contributed to throwing the British out,” he said. “Maybe they are taking revenge now.”

A spokesman for the British military in Basra denied any involvement in the killing and gave a much different account of the hostilities on Wednesday.

Bani Asad tribesmen arrived at the government building armed but peaceful and demanded to see the governor, Muhammad al-Waili, a member of a different tribe, said the spokesman, Maj. Charlie Burbridge. “The protesters arrived and walked in the door,” he said, “It wasn’t an attack.”

Iraqi Army soldiers and local police succeeded in moving the armed men out of Mr. Waili’s offices, he said, though an Iraqi police officer appears to have been killed in a skirmish that followed. As the tribesmen were leaving the area, they passed a British military encampment and fired at it, provoking “quite an exchange of small-arms fire” that lasted 20 minutes, Major Burbridge said.

In Karbala, the violence on Wednesday took on a different hue, as security forces controlled by Shiites who are aligned with the main pro-Iranian bloc, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, fought militiamen loyal to a local Shiite cleric opposed to Iran’s influence in Iraq. The battle led security forces to cordon off the city to most nonresidents and impose a curfew.

Sheik Ali Badir al-Aboudi, an aide of the cleric, Mahmoud al-Hassani, said in an interview that the attack on Wednesday was in retaliation for a car bomb that exploded near one of the cleric’s schools. “We know that Iranian intelligence helped them to do this attack,” Mr. Aboudi said, “and now they are sending in troops to kill and arrest everyone they can.”

Ten militia fighters were killed and 281 were arrested, according to a statement from the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview on Wednesday that the majority of police forces in southern Iraq were more loyal to Shiite leaders than the Iraqi government, and he suggested earlier this month that power struggles among Shiite factions in Iraq could further destabilize the country.

“Intra-Shiite political struggles are becoming a source of violence,” he wrote in an Aug. 1 analysis. “It is unclear how bad this Shiite factionalism really is,” he added, though it “may surface as a major new problem.”

In Baghdad, three bombs in the central part of the city killed 21 people on Wednesday, officials said. Around 9 a.m., a roadside bomb in the Nahdad district in central Baghdad killed 8 people and wounded 17 others, an Interior Ministry official said. At 7 p.m., two car bombs killed 13 people and left 43 others wounded, the official said.

The military has charged a Marine officer with assaulting three Iraqi civilians in April, accusing him of beating and choking them and placing a pistol in one victim’s mouth, Reuters reported. The officer, Second Lt. Nathan Phan, was charged with three counts of assault and one count of making a false statement relating to the matter, on April 10, near Hamdania, a town west of Baghdad.

Qais Mizher and Ali Adeeb contributed reporting for this article.

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