Followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr staged noisy protests on Thursday against a crackdown on Shi’ite fighters in Basra as the southern oil hub was rocked by a third straight day of fighting.
Demonstrations were held in Sadr City and Kadhimiyah, two Baghdad bastions of Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, even as preliminary contacts were held between the government and Sadrist officials in a bid to resolve the crisis.
An Agence France-Presse correspondent in Basra said heavy fighting erupted early on Thursday in the central Jumhuriyah neighbourhood, a Mehdi Army bastion, which was rocked by rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and small arms fire.
Iraqi troops launched security operations on Tuesday in Basra neighbourhoods controlled by the Mehdi Army under orders from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to rid the city of “lawless gangs”.
In Sadr City, an impoverished Shi’ite district of about two million people in east Baghdad, crowds gathered from 10am local time to yell slogans against Maliki, who is in Basra overseeing the military operations.
“Maliki you are a coward! Maliki is an American agent! Leave the government, Maliki! How can you strike Basra?” the crowd chanted.
In the Kadhimiyah neighbourhood of north Baghdad, followers of Sadr carried a coffin covered in red fabric with an attached photograph of Maliki set against the background of an American flag.
Under the picture were the words: “This is the new dictator.”
Sheikh Ayad al-Kaabi, a Sadr official, said that the demonstration was called “to demand the resignation of the Maliki government”.
“We demand the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Basra and an end to the siege in Baghdad,” he said.
The Sadr movement had announced on Wednesday it would hold protest rallies against Maliki in Baghdad and the southern city of Amara, while Sadr has threatened to launch a civil revolt if the attacks against the militiamen are not halted.
Police spokesperson Colonel Karim al-Zaidi said the convoy of Basra police chief Major General Abdul Jalil Khalaf was hit by a suicide car bomber at about 1am local time on Thursday as it passed through the streets of Basra.
“Three policemen were killed in the attack,” Zaidi said, adding that Khalaf was unharmed.
Residents said the streets of the oil-rich city of 1,5-million people, the economic nerve centre of Iraq, were deserted on Thursday and that shops and businesses were shut.
On Wednesday Maliki gave militiamen battling his forces in Basra 72 hours to lay down their arms and warned that those failing to do so would face the full brunt of the law.
Basra has become the theatre of a bitter turf war between the Mehdi Army and two rival Shi’ite factions — the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and the smaller Fadhila party.
The three factions are fighting to control the huge oil revenues generated in the province, which was transferred to Iraqi control by the British military in December.
An aide to Sadr said representatives of the Iraqi government and a Sadrist official held preliminary talks by telephone on Thursday in a bid to end the crisis in Basra.
Liqa ali-Yassin, a member of Sadr’s 32-member parliamentary bloc, said Liwa Sumaysim, head of Sadr’s political bureau in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, spoke by telephone with Shi’ite MP Ali al-Adib from Maliki’s Dawa party.
The two were planning to hold face-to-face talks in Basra but Yassin was unable to say exactly when the meeting would take place.
US military spokesperson Major General Kevin Bergner told a news conference on Wednesday that 2 000 extra Iraqi security forces had been sent to Basra for the operation.
He said it was aimed at improving security in the city ahead of provincial elections in October. — AFP