Basra splits between warring
Shi'ites By Ali al-Fadhily
BASRA, Iraq - Oil-rich Basra in the south
of Iraq is getting caught up in an increasingly
fierce battle between warring Shi'ite groups.
Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq,
with a population of 2.6 million, is the capital
of 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 US-led
occupation, has said his group will not accept
Basra Governor Mohammad al-Wai'ili because he is a
member of the Shi'ite Fadhila Party.
Al-Fadhila withdrew from the ruling
Shi'ite political coalition last month. Al-Fadhila
leaders said they refused to participate in
sectarian politics. The party has declared it will
continue as an independent bloc.
the fact that both groups have ordered withdrawal
of their representatives from the Iraqi
government, they remain at odds.
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 meddling
within Iraq's Shi'ite political groups.
Muqtada 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 or otherwise.
But the positions on Iran are not all
clear and consistent, and several positions are
taken in response to personalities rather than
Muqtada has been at odds with
Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali 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
But some broad similarities of
position have not eased differences between the
"Our party offices have
received threats of attacks, and we take such
threats seriously," a senior al-Fadhila leader
said on condition of anonymity. "It is all because
we would not continue the mistake of dividing
government posts by sectarian
The party says it is working
for a unified Iraq, and accused the government,
which until recently had Sadrist representatives,
of playing sectarian politics in Iraq.
Muqtada also speaks for a unified Iraq,
but his Mehdi Army continues to attack Sunnis,
particularly in Baghdad.
called on his followers to demonstrate against the
Basra governor. An estimated 2,000 people joined
the demonstration, far fewer than Muqtada had
"Those who follow the call of
al-Sadr are not so many in Basra," high-school
headmaster Muhammad Hussein said. He blamed
troublemakers on all sides. "Only gangsters who
are interested in looting the government's
property would benefit from the chaos."
The past few weeks have seen several
clashes between armed men from each group. In one
instance, gunmen believed to be from Muqtada's
Mehdi Army raided an office of the Fadhila Party.
"It is not our dispute," Kathum Fadhil
from the port authority in Basra said. "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 adviser to
al-Fadhila. The tribes said they would back
Yaaqubi against "Persian authority", referring to
Sistani. Yaaqubi is Iraqi, while Sistani moved to
Najaf from Iran in 1953.
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 said. "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 who are largely
responsible for security in southern Iraq, and
particularly Basra, do not want to interfere in
the new political disputes.
military "started with evicting our Sunni Arab
brothers and now they are turning against us", a
Shi'ite tribal chief said. "They want the south of
Iraq to be an easy bite for Iranians and their
interests in Iraq."
Jassim Alwan, a
30-year-old Basra resident, said: "Iran has always
had an eye on our country, but their dream is too
far from coming to reality. We will fight them the
same way we fought them before, and even harder."
But most people in Basra blame the US-led
occupation for the collapsing situation.
"They pretend that they are fighting
terror, but they are cooperating with Iranian
terror in our cities," said Ahmed, a member of the
Ba'ath Party in Basra. "There are daily
assassinations against us and other brothers who
do not support the occupation, and the occupation
forces are happy with that."
residents said they expect the situation in the
south to get worse, and the divisions between the
Shi'ite political parties to widen.
not certain who will be responsible for security.
A senior British military officer told reporters
that British forces in southern Iraq are expected
to shrink from the current 7,000 to just a few
hundred within two years.
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
At least eight British soldiers
have been killed so far in April, making this 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.
Ali al-Fadhily, Inter Press
Service's correspondent in Baghdad, works in close
collaboration with Dahr Jamail, IPS's US-based
specialist writer on Iraq, who travels extensively
in the region.