03/28/2008, 00.00
IRAQ
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Al-Maliki against al-Sadr with Basra in the balance

Clashes between the national army and the Mahdi army militias continue. In four days the death toll has reached 130. In the capital Baghdad people also live in terror, under a curfew. Experts suggest that the interests of al-Maliki’s militia in the south explain the action. They warn that this battle might end in his political demise.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – The battle for Basra between 30,000 Iraqi national army troops and militias loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr is having repercussions across the country. Fighting continues today in the oil-rich southern Iraqi city whilst ‘Mahdi Army’ fighters have shown no sign that they are ready to lay down their weapons after Prime Minister al-Maliki’s 72-hour ultimatum expired. The premier himself is leading the offensive.

The population is growing weary of what is going on concerned about the continuing fighting that has left 130 people dead since Tuesday.

The government has given a deadline of 8 April for residents to hand in weapons in exchange for cash. But in many areas there is no power or water. Medical assistance cannot be delivered and food is starting to be scarce.

“It's all a grab for oil and power. They couldn't care less about what happens to people,’ a man interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor in the Basra neighbourhood of Junaina

Oil fields in the Basra region provide 80 per cent of the government's revenue.

Al-Sadr has a great many followers in nine southern provinces who hope to make gains in next October’s local elections.

The situation is also tense in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighbourhood, a Shia stronghold with at least two million residents where al-Sadr’s followers are strongly present.

The government has imposed a three-day curfew whilst al-Sadr called for a “civil disobedience campaign”. Al-Sadr himself has been in Iran for months

Schools, universities and stores are close as the Shia leader threatens a ‘civil revolt’ around the country if the offensive is not halted.

Local sources told AsiaNews that the population “is living in terror whatever their religious affiliation; they have greater than usual fear of going out.”

Supporters of al-Sadr are in the streets protesting, calling on al-Maliki to resign.

Other similar demonstrations have been taking place in the southern city of Kerbala, one of the two Shia holy cities.

The battle for Basra marks a split in the ruling Shia block between the al-Sadr group and supporters of the Prime Minister’s Dawa party.

For many it might mark the “political demise of al-Maliki.”

Iraqi experts link the clashes in the south to a power struggle between militias rather than an attempt by the central government to re-assert its power against extremist fringes.

All political groups in Iraq have their own militias, and that includes al-Maliki as well.

His sudden action in Basra can thus be seen as an attempt to stave off an ongoing loss of power in favour of the Mahdi army.

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