Iraqi security forces fought raging battles with gunmen from radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’ite militia in Basra on Tuesday amid a crackdown on armed groups in the southern city.
British military officials said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was in Basra to personally oversee the major security force sweep in Iraq’s second largest city, but that British troops were not participating in the crackdown.
An Agence France-Presse correspondent said fighting involving mortars and gunfire erupted soon after the security forces entered the al-Tamiyah neighbourhood, a bastion of Sadr’s Mehdi Army, at about 5am local time.
Television pictures showed Iraqi troops running through the streets firing weapons as ambulances raced past.
Witnesses said the streets were empty aside from the security forces, emergency vehicles and people in cars fleeing the fighting.
Officials at the main hospital in Basra said a number of wounded people had been brought in but there were no immediate reports of anyone killed.
Clashes quickly spread to five other neighbourhoods, including al-Jumhuriyah, Five Miles and al-Hayania, the Mehdi Army’s main stronghold in Basra, 550km south of Baghdad.
Police confirmed the start of the operation, which came after a night-time curfew was slapped on the entire Basra province late on Monday.
“We began operations at 5am. There is fighting between security forces and the Mehdi Army,” said police spokesperson Major Karim al-Zubaidi.
A spokesperson for Sadr’s office in Basra, Harith al-Athari, said that the Sadrists wanted to end the stand-off.
“The situation is bad and we regret the fighting. We are ready for negotiations and want to calm things,” he said.
Liwa Sumaysim, head of Sadr’s political bureau in the central city of Najaf, denounced the bloodletting.
“We do not want the situation as it is in Basra. We are against bloodshed, especially in this critical period of time,” Sumaysim said.
“The Sadr movement is being targeted in Basra, that is why this tension has been created. The Iraqi government forces should not use force against poor people,” he added.
“Sadr emphasises the need to solve the problem peacefully through dialogue. Sadr is following the events and his instruction is to solve this problem politically with Iraq’s leaders.”
Sadr has ordered his militia to observe the ceasefire, which he called last August following bloody fighting in the shrine city of Karbala blamed on his fighters.
After touring Basra on Monday, Maliki vowed his government would restore order.
“Basra city is experiencing a brutal campaign from internal and external groups targeting its security and stability by killing scientific, social and spiritual personalities as well as innocent men and women,” he said in a statement.
“This is accompanied by the smuggling of oil, weapons and drugs. The outlaws are finding support from within the state and outside. This is why Basra has become a city where civilians cannot even secure their lives and property,” Maliki said.
“That has affected negatively the economic development. The federal Iraqi government … will restore security, stability and enforce law in this city.”
Late on Monday, General Mohan al-Furayji, the Iraqi commander in charge of security in southern Iraq, announced an immediate and indefinite 10pm to 6am curfew in the province, saying the security sweep was designed to “impose the law and chase the criminals”.
Vehicle access to Basra would be temporarily closed from neighbouring provinces while teaching at schools and universities had been suspended.
Basra businessman Mohammed al-Hajaj said troops had flooded the streets of the city on Monday night and that most people were remaining indoors on Tuesday.
“All the Iraqi forces are out in the streets of the city,” he said.
“We heard shooting in the night and again this morning.”
Basra province was handed over to Iraqi control by British forces in mid-December. — AFP