/ 13 March 2008

Iraqi militia told to cease fire after clashes

One of Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s senior aides ordered his Mehdi Army militiamen on Thursday to observe a ceasefire after they clashed with United States soldiers in the southern city of Kut.

Al-Sadr, whose militia fought two battles against US forces in southern Iraq in 2004, extended a seven-month-old ceasefire last month, but at the weekend issued a statement telling followers they could defend themselves if attacked.

Mehdi Army militiamen battled Iraqi and US forces on Tuesday in clashes that police said killed 11 people.

Late on Wednesday night, gunmen exchanged rocket and mortar fire with US soldiers at a base near Kut.

”We call on them to calm down and to cease fire and to stop shedding the blood of Iraqis. This is the opinion of al-Sadr, whether it is in Kut or any other Iraqi provinces,” Luwaa Sumaisem, a senior aide to al-Sadr, said.

There were no reports of clashes involving the Mehdi Army elsewhere in Iraq, suggesting the Kut exchanges were isolated.

The ceasefire, which al-Sadr first called last August, has been praised by US commanders for helping reduce violence, with attacks across Iraq down by 60% since last June.

But Peter Harling, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, said the Sadrist rank and file feared that US forces were siding with another Shi’ite militia, the Badr Organisation loyal to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), Iraq’s dominant Shi’ite faction and strongly represented in the police force.

”There is tremendous frustration among Sadrists at the rank and file level,” he said by telephone from Damascus.

He said the tensions between militias in the south were extremely deep-rooted, but added: ”I would be surprised if this spread and turned into an all-out civil war.”

Upsurge in violence

The fighting in Kut comes amid an upsurge in violence across Iraq since January. The US military has acknowledged the rise but says it does not represent a long-term trend.

Up to eight people were killed and 20 wounded when a bomb exploded in a parked car in the busy shopping district of Bab al-Sharji in central Baghdad on Thursday, police said.

In Kut, 170km south-east of Baghdad, a police official said as many as 11 Katyusha rockets landed on a US base near the city late on Wednesday. Residents said the attackers were Mehdi Army fighters.

Two brothers were killed and four other people, including a six-year-old girl, were wounded when US soldiers responded with mortar rounds, the police official said.

A US spokesperson said the Americans had responded after four rockets were fired at the base. She had no information on civilian casualties but added no US soldiers had been hurt.

Iraqi police said the rockets were fired from Kut’s Shuhada district, one of four Mehdi Army strongholds raided by Iraqi police on Wednesday.

Hussein al-Quraishi, a Kut police lieutenant who identified himself as the uncle of the two brothers who were killed, said he saw two men in a pickup truck and two on motorcycles launch six rockets from a field near his house towards the US base.

About 30 minutes later, mortar rounds landed on four houses nearby, demolishing his brother’s house, he said.

”If the gunmen want to fight, there is the American base, let them go there and fight,” Quraishi said, wiping tears from his eyes with his shirt sleeves. ”What have we done wrong? Our children are horrified. My brother’s sons were killed.” — Reuters