Iraqi Leader Maliki Tours Struggling Area

Iraq's new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visits the southern river port city of Basra in a bid to contain an escalating power struggle among rival Shiite factions.

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Iraq's prime minister traveled to the troubled southern city of Basra today, and declared a 30-day state of emergency there. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says he hopes that more soldiers and security measures will help bring an end to the killing, kidnapping, and general lawlessness in Basra. For months, the city has been plagued by power struggles among Shiite factions and militias. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Baghdad.

PETER KENYON: As the southern center of the oil industry, Basra is crucial to Iraq's future. Iraqi officials say that hasn't been lost on the rival militias and gangs prowling the streets of Basra in recent months. Some are from the veteran Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade. Some are loyal to the Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, and others are supporters of Fadhila, another Shiite party. Added to that mix are criminal elements carrying out kidnappings, oil smuggling, and extortion, leaving Basra residents at their wits' end. At a meeting with local sheiks and other leaders, Maliki repeated his message that security is his top priority, and violence will not be tolerated.

NOURI AL: (Through Translator) We declare with all force and frankness that we will strike with an iron fist on the heads of the gangsters, or anyone who tampers with security. And we call on the Security Services to draw up an immediate and effective security plan for the city, to restore quiet and give the people a feeling of security.

KENYON: To back up his tough talk, Maliki declared a state of emergency that - according to Iraqi officials - will include Iraqi troops from the 10th Armored Brigade on patrol day and night, and a committee of local, regional and federal officials to consult on additional security measures. Maliki also broached the sensitive issue of sectarian militias in the most general terms.

ALMALIKI: (Through Translator) This cannot be allowed. That a policeman, a security man, or a military man be fearful of political interventions.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ALMALIKI: (Through Translator) Because this will be a start from which security cannot be achieved. We cannot build a country in which the forces struggle against each other.

KENYON: Missing from his rhetoric was any specific plan for disarming the militias, perhaps not surprising since Maliki has been unable to appoint permanent interior or defense ministers due to squabbling within his government. Elsewhere in Iraq today, Iraqi and U.S. officials said American troops shot at a car that failed to stop at an observation post near Samara, north of Baghdad. A pregnant Iraqi woman racing to the hospital and her cousin were found dead inside the car. The driver said he saw no warning to stop before the shots were fired.

At the Saddam Hussein trial, a U.S. official said defense witnesses who leveled allegations of misconduct - including attempted bribery - against the chief prosecutor had been held by the court while their claims are checked out. As Maliki left Basra to return to Baghdad, local residents said their initial joy at his visit turned to resignation as they watched the meeting degenerate into a shouting match among the various factions. They said they hoped the prime minister would be able to back up his strong talk with action, but they have their doubts. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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