Fighting breaks out between Iraqi Shi’ite militias

By Luke Baker

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Fighting broke out in Baghdad and the
holy city of Najaf on Wednesday between rival Shi’ite militias,
raising fears of a renewed uprising by radical cleric Moqtada
al-Sadr’s Mehdi army against the U.S.-backed government.

At least eight people were killed and dozens wounded,
health officials said, in street battles in Najaf involving
pro-government Badr Organization fighters and supporters of
Sadr, who has joined Sunni Arabs in denouncing a constitution
the Shi’ite-led government is preparing to force through
parliament.

The head of the Badr Organization denied it was involved.

The interior minister dispatched police commandos to Najaf
and announced a curfew in the city on state television.

A spokesman for Sadr warned of a “general call to arms”
unless rival groups apologized for what he called attacks on
Sadr’s office in Najaf. His Mehdi Army was banned after U.S.
troops crushed two uprisings last year, but it has not
disarmed.

Iraq’s health minister, a Sadr supporter, said eight people
were killed when a protest outside the movement’s office in
Najaf turned violent. He said he would suspend his role in the
government until he was satisfied they had dealt with the
issue.

Later, Baghdad police said armed Sadr followers attacked
offices of the Badr Organization, allied to a powerful Shi’ite
Islamist party in the ruling coalition, in three Shi’ite
districts. Witnesses said at least one office had been
occupied.

In the southern city of Basra, witnesses said about 300
armed men loyal to Sadr had gathered outside his office.

Earlier in the day, Sunni Arab insurgents had fought police
in the streets of Baghdad, in the most brazen infantry attack
they have launched in the capital for weeks, after Sunni
leaders warned the adoption of the constitution could lead to
civil war.

Witnesses said up to 500 armed men loyal to Sadr had
gathered around his Najaf office following battles that broke
out after dark in the city, 160 km (100 miles) south of
Baghdad.

ACCUSATIONS

Sadr’s spokesman blamed the violence on the police and
“another group,” an apparent reference to the Badr
Organization, which is tied to the Supreme Council for the
Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a key element of the
coalition government.

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabor, a SCIRI member, said
he had sent police commandos to Najaf and a curfew would be
imposed from 11 p.m. (1900 GMT).

“We call on everyone not to violate the security of all
cities in Iraq and make the cities unsafe,” Jabor said.

Rivalries have emerged among Shi’ite groups ahead of a
constitutional referendum in October and an election scheduled
for December. The government has disappointed the hopes of many
in the Shi’ite majority who had expected rapid improvements in
their security and prosperity after decades of Sunni dominance.

Sadr, young for such an influential cleric, derives
strength from poor Shi’ites and his late cleric father’s
religious aura.

An outspoken Iraqi nationalist, he has maintained political
ties with leaders of the Sunnis, and his followers join Sunnis
in criticizing SCIRI and other formerly exiled pro-government
groups of being too close to non-Arab, Shi’ite Iran.

Hours earlier, in the capital, dozens of insurgents
ambushed police in the Sunni stronghold of Hay al-Jamia in
Baghdad. At least six police vehicles were set ablaze as a
group of about 40 guerrillas, some with faces masked, fired
rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons in a brazen
assault on a police checkpoint and on reinforcements who
arrived to help.

“It was raining bullets,” said a police official, who said
a dozen police vehicles had been sent in to try to evacuate
those under attack, but had failed against the onslaught of
gunfire.

Police said 10 civilians and three policemen died. A police
source said 43 people were wounded.

CONSTITUTION

Parliament is expected to vote on Thursday on the new
constitution, although no sitting has yet been scheduled. When
it was presented just before a Monday deadline, the vote was
put off for three days, apparently to help tempers cool after
Sunnis said they would demand further major changes.

A senior U.S. military official said his forces were
bracing for an insurgent onslaught: “We believe that the enemy
is still … intending to conduct some larger-scale operation
in Baghdad associated with the release (of the constitution),”
he said.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani held another day of talks
with leaders from the Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish communities on
Wednesday to try to forge a consensus on the charter, but he
looked unlikely to succeed before the vote on Thursday.

Sunni leaders said they were determined to stand firm
against a document they argue would devolve too much power to
the regions and which demonizes Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

“We reject federalism in the central and southern regions,
we reject it because it has no basis other than sectarianism,”
Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of an umbrella group called the National
Conference for the Sunni People of Iraq, told reporters.

“Every Iraqi must stand in the way of all those who want to
deepen sectarianism in Iraq.”

In Hawija, north of Baghdad, hundreds of Sunnis, joined by
Sadr supporters, marched against the constitution.

If two thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq’s 18
provinces vote “No,” the constitution will be rejected.

(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy, Andrew Hammond,
Aseel Kami, Alastair Macdonald and Hiba Moussa in Baghdad,
Abdel-Razzak Hameed in Basra and Khaled Farhan in Najaf)

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