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Karbala's Shiite Clashes Spread to Other Towns
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Karbala's Shiite Clashes Spread to Other Towns

Iraq

Karbala's Shiite Clashes Spread to Other Towns
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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his powerful Mahdi Army militia to stand down for six months. The Mahdi Army is widely blamed for starting a fierce battle yesterday with a rival Shiite militia in the holy city of Karbala. The fighting took place at the height of a major religious festival, and in the midst of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. More than 50 people were killed.

NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from Baghdad. And Corey, what does Sadr's order mean, suspending all military activity for six months?

COREY FLINTOFF: Well, he issued a statement saying that all Mahdi Army operation should be frozen while the organization restructures and returns to what he says are his - its original principles. He included some other orders that you could see it as a way to test his immediate influence over his followers.

For instance, he decreed three days of mourning for people who are killed yesterday in Karbala. And he called for everyone to wear black during that period. He also called for the closure of all the Sadr movement offices across the country. Although it's not clear yet whether that's for the entire six months or just for this period of mourning.

SIEGEL: Now, it has been an open question for some time as to how much control Moqtada al-Sadr has over his own militia. He seemed to be unable to stop the militia's involvement in things like sectarian murders, organized crime. Can today's order have more effect than his orders in the past?

FLINTOFF: Well, it may help to clarify just which units he does control and which ones are operating on their own. And for the past couple of months, U.S. Army commanders have been blaming attacks and crimes on what they like to call rogue JAM. That's become a joke among the reporters here, that JAM are the initials of Jaish al-Mahdi, the Arabic name for the militia. And rogue JAM would be Mahdi Army units that are not considered to be under Sadr's control. So now, the U.S. Army and the Iraqi army would have free rein to attack any Mahdi Army units that keep operating despite Sadr's orders.

SIEGEL: Well, as a practical matter, what's entailed in shutting down the militia?

FLINTOFF: It's got to be an organization that's more than a paramilitary group. So in - it provides law enforcement, it provides protection for people in Shiite enclaves such a Sadr city. And probably the biggest thing is that the militia provides employment or at least to occupy the energy of a lot of men who otherwise would be out on the street with nothing to do.

SIEGEL: Corey, what about the Mahdi Army's struggle for control of the southern part of Iraq and control of a lot of Iraq's oil wealth, which is there?

FLINTOFF: Well, the same factional fighting that sparked yesterday's massacre in Karbala has been going on in Iraq's southern provinces for months. The Mahdi Army has been fighting two other Shiite groups and allegedly waging an assassination campaign to gain control of the governments in key provinces. And the stakes here are enormous, given that whoever wins is going to control a colossal amount of oil. So it's hard to imagine that the Mahdi commanders will stand down now.

The Mahdi Army also claims, of course, that it's defeated the British in southern Iraq, and has forced them to withdraw. The British, of course, say that they're conducting an ordered redeployment, but that's looking more and more like a route. Our reporter in Basra told us today that looters are actually gathering outside the palaces that British forces are expected to vacate within, probably in the next few days. One of the ringleaders of the looters was quoted as saying, we're waiting to see what God will give us.

SIEGEL: NPR's Corey Flintoff speaking to us from Baghdad. Corey, thank you very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Robert.

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