By Ben Turner
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East Desk
BAGHDAD, Iraq – On March 25, heavy fighting broke out across Baghdad and Basra as the US-backed Iraqi military mounted a large operation against Shiite militias. The operation is an attempt to break the militia’s control over Basra, the largest oil hub in Iraq. There were also serious clashes in the southern cities of Kut and Hilla. Overall, at least 50 people were killed.
Among the Iraqi military’s targets were members of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, further risking the breakdown of the ceasefire imposed by Sadr over the organization last summer. The ceasefire has been credited as a major source for the decreased violence in Iraq. Intermittent clashes were reported in Basra beginning early on March 25 in the neighborhoods of Hayania, Jubaila and Jumhuria – known Sadr strongholds.
In response to the violence, Sadr’s followers mounted a civil disobedience campaign across Baghdad, demanding the release of Sadr’s followers from detention centers. They also demanded an end to Iraqi government raids.
Sadr’s leaders ordered stores to be closed and for taxi and bus drivers to stop working. Neighborhoods usually bustling with activity became virtual ghost towns, with many streets all but empty. In a statement, Sadr called upon Iraqis to stage sit-ins and threatened a nationwide “civil revolt” if US and Iraqi forces continue attacking and arresting his followers.
Iraqi officials said the operation was aimed at “all those who point their guns at the state,” but Sadr’s followers say the offensive was politically-motivated and aimed specifically at them for their stances against the US occupation.
The Sadrists said if the operation was an attempt to improve security, they would fully cooperate with the government’s attempt to restore order. The Sadrists added that while they don’t seek a confrontation with the Iraqi government, the people had the right to defend themselves when they are being attacked.
While Moqtada Sadr renewed the six-month ceasefire last month, he recently told his supporters that they were free to defend themselves against government attacks.
For more information, please see:
New York Times – Iraqi Crackdown on Shiite Forces Sets Off Fighting – 26 March 2008
Al Jazeera – Iraq Battles Spread Beyond Basra – 25 March 2008
CNN – Peaceful Iraq Protests Spark Clashes; 50 Reported Dead – 25 March 2008
Middle East Times – Basra Battles Rage and Spread in Iraq – 25 March 2008
U.S. News and World Report – Clashes in Iraq’s No. 2 City May Trigger Violence Elsewhere – 25 March 2008
Washington Post – Iraqi Forces Battle Gunmen in Basra – 25 March 2008