Iraq Update: Shiites Factions Battle in Najaf

Hostilities erupted overnight between Shiite Muslim factions in the Iraqi city of Najaf. Alex Chadwick speaks with Hannah Allam, Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers, about the fighting and the role of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the dispute.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR West. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, Hawaii tries its answer to high gas prices--a new law that sets limits on those prices. First, the lead. The confusing situation in Iraq as another constitutional deadline passes and there's more violence. We're going to Baghdad and the bureau chief for Knight Ridder newspaper. She's Hannah Allam.

Hannah, welcome to the show.

And let me just read you these accounts from news wires about what's going on today in Baghdad. First, the Associated Press: `Parliament says it has no plans to meet Thursday night. No date for a future session, signaling Iraqi factions failing to reach agreement on a new constitution before a self-imposed midnight target.' That's the Associated Press. Now Reuters: `A final version of Iraq's constitution has been completed. The document will be approved later on Thursday, said government spokesman Laith Kubba.' Hannah Allam, it's very hard to know what is going on in Baghdad.

Ms. HANNAH ALLAM (Bureau Chief, Knight Ridder): You know, it's just as hard to figure out if you're on the ground. We're hearing the same conflicting reports, but as far as we know, there is a pretty complete draft constitution ready to go before the National Assembly, but as the delay indicates and the canceled session tonight, there will be no voting on it. That's what we're being told by Iraqi legislators, there will be no voting tonight. They still have some kinks to iron out, particularly with the Sunni Arabs. And so they expect a vote probably early next week.

CHADWICK: This government spokesperson is quoted as saying there actually was a vote on Monday sort of approving things so we don't actually need a vote today in order to settle this issue; it's sort of settled.

Ms. ALLAM: Well, they had to get a draft constitution before the Iraqi legislature by Monday. They did that. Now lawmakers have to settle on some sticking points, namely the issue of federalism, the role of religion, the distribution of oil revenues among Iraqis. So there are still some contentious issues and I think they just need more time. They're probably going to work through the weekend on this.

CHADWICK: OK. Moving on to the violence that broke out yesterday between Shiite factions. There's this Muslim cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who we heard a lot about a year ago when he was leading his forces against Americans and against the government down in Najaf. There was another outbreak of violence yesterday from Moqtada al-Sadr's followers fighting with other Shiites. We hear about violence all the time between Sunnis and Shiites. Why are these Shiite factions fighting each other and what does that mean?

Ms. ALLAM: The problem in the south yesterday was there's been a long-standing battle for control of the Shia ...(unintelligible) in southern Iraq between Moqtada al-Sadr's forces, sort of a populist, nationalist movement, and the more established government-aligned Sadr organization, which is also a Shia militia-turned-political faction. So both of those groups have been fighting sort of low-intensity clashes for a while, but yesterday, it erupted with the burning of Moqtada al-Sadr's office in Najaf and he blamed the Badr organization and its allies for that and fighting broke out in several cities. It continued this morning, and then Moqtada al-Sadr came out and said, `OK. Please, stop this violence. Calm down. Let's let the political process work itself out.' So for now, things are relatively stable, but one more provocation like this and it could definitely heat up again, even lead to another uprising.

CHADWICK: Your report today in the papers quotes an aide to Moqtada al-Sadr on the phone calling up some of his men and saying, `Go burn down the office of the opposition.'

Ms. ALLAM: That's right. We had a reporter in Najaf outside Moqtada al-Sadr's office, and he heard firsthand these militia commanders ordering people in other cities to torch the rival political offices and apparently that happened. I mean, television news here has been showing burned-out offices all day from several different cities. So it got really ugly overnight and early this morning, but things are much calmer today.

CHADWICK: Hannah Allam. She's Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder newspapers.

Hannah, thank you.

Ms. ALLAM: Thank you.

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