Saturday, October 21, 2006

Amara Fighting Threatens Stability of South

Explanation of What is Behind Shi'a-Shi'a Fighting

By Juan Cole

"Fighting broke out Thursday and Friday in the southern city of Amara (pop. 330,000) between the Mahdi Army and the local police (which are infiltrated by the Badr Corps, another Shiite militia). The fighting killed 9 and wounded 90. The Mahdi Army fighters occupied three buildings important to the police, including the major crimes office, the police directorate

Aljazeera is reporting that relative calm has returned to the city on Saturday morning, in part through the mediation of the central government. The governor of Maysan province told the Arabic satellite channel that British forces tried three times to intervene, but he said that each time he told them that local authorities would handle it.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had sent a security team down to look into the violence and to stop it.

Amara is the capital of Maysan province (pop. 770,000). Maysan province in general and Amara in particular support the nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Maysan and its capital are among the places to which the Marsh Arabs were displaced when their swamps dried up, and they are often desperately poor and very tribal, and they seem to have joined the Sadr Movement en masse during the past 3 years.

When the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim controlled the Interior Ministry in 2005 and until May, 2006, it used the ministry's national oversight of local police forces to infiltrate members of SCIRI's paramilitary, the Badr Corps, into the Amara police force. There is a bubbling low-level feud between the Sadrists in Maysan and the SCIRI police.

So recently the Mahdi Army assassinated Qasim al-Tamimi, a police official who was also a member of the Badr Corps. The Badr Corps was formed in Iran and trained by the Revolutionary Guards, and is viewed by many in the Iraqi-nationalist Mahdi Army as the tool of a foreign power.

Then the police arrested or abducted (when militia are in police, how could you tell?) 5 men, including the brother of a Mahdi Army leader in Amara. Then protests escalated into fighting, and the Mahdi Army took over several police stations and killed or wounded dozens of police/ Badr Corps militiamen.

The Western press is mostly reporting this story backwards, as a pro-Iranian Sadr Movement taking over Amara. In fact, the Sadr Movement already dominated Amara politically, but the (Iranian-trained) Badr Corps had this unnatural niche in the police. It was Badr that had "taken over" the security forces in a largely Sadrist city. The Mahdi Army was attempting to align local politics with local power.

Muqtada al-Sadr, the young spiritual leader of the Sadr Movement and the Mahdi Army, demanded that his men stop fighting and said that he washed his hands of anyone who disobeyed his orders, according to Aljazeera.

Ahmad al-Sharifi, a Sadrist leader, told al-Zaman that the fighting in Amara is one of the consequences of the law on provincial confederacies passed last week by the Iraqi parliament, to which the Sadr Movement was opposed.

Al-Zaman's contacts in the Iraqi intelligence establishment warned that the clashes in Amara could spread to the cities of Basra and Nasiriyah. He said that the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps in those two cities had announced their mutual dislike of one another, and that they had begun recruiting further militiamen to replenish their ranks.

These sources said that the transportation and communications lines between Baghdad and the south had been cut, leaving the capital isolated from the south. The main highway leading south out Baghdad had been blocked.

They said that Basra is witnessing an unprecedented wave of weapons smuggling across the border from Iran.

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