Shiite Power Struggle Divides Iraqis
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The clashes Tom just spoke of were triggered in March. That's when Iraqi government forces backed by the U.S. military launched an attack against Shiite militants loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Regional experts argue that this is a power struggle between rival Shiite factions. The prize is control of southern Iraq.
NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Baghdad.
IVAN WATSON: A new video has recently been making the rounds on Iraqi cell phone and computers.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
WATSON: For eight shaky, violent minutes it offers a disturbing glimpse of the fratricidal conflict that's been raging in Iraq's Shiite heartland. In the video, scores of Iraqi soldiers in armored Humvees enter a burning compound that's believed to be the office of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement in the southern town of Nasiriyah.
(Soundbite of shouting)
WATSON: Iraqi troops drag out several young men, kicking and beating them with rifles. Their victims lie in the dirt, begging for their lives.
(Soundbite of shouting)
WATSON: After several bursts of gunfire, the shaky camera pans across the bodies of at least eight young men.
Muqtada al-Sadr's spokesman, Salah al-Obaidi, says this is evidence that rival Shiites in the Iraqi government have launched a campaign using the Iraqi army to weaken the Sadrists and their Mahdi Army militia ahead of provincial elections which are expected to take place in October.
Mr. SALAH AL-OBAIDI (Spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr): (Through translator) We think that this is a campaign of fighting against the Sadrists, and the Shiite parties in the government see the Sadrists as their strongest competitors.
WATSON: Sadr's main Shiite rivals are Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the cleric and politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. Like Sadr, Hakim has long had his own militia called the Badr Brigade. Over the past five years, thousands of Badr fighters have been recruited into the Iraqi Army. Former Badr commander and parliament member Hadi al-Amiri rejects accusations that the government is targeting Sadr.
Mr. HADI AL-AMIRI (Parliament Member): (Through translator) This is not a political dispute. This is not a Shiite-Shiite conflict. This is a conflict between the state and a group of outlaws.
WATSON: Amiri accuses Muqtada al-Sadr's gunmen of killing large numbers of Iraqis across the south of the country.
Mr. MAHMOUD OTHMAN (Parliamentarian): There are two militias fighting each other - one inside the government and one outside the government.
WATSON: Mahmoud Othman is a Kurd and an independent member of the Iraqi parliament. He says this Shiite conflict stems from a long-running rivalry between two families of Shiite clerics - the Sadrs and the Hakims.
Mr. OTHMAN: These two families, they have been in conflict since (unintelligible).
WATSON: Since the Iraqi government launched the offensive against Sadr's followers last March, the U.S. military has increasingly been drawn into the battle. American forces have been clashing day and night with elements of Sadr's militia in the slum in eastern Baghdad known as Sadr City.
Colonel Don Bacon is a spokesman for the U.S. military.
Do you see this is a Shiite power struggle that the U.S. is caught in the middle of?
Colonel DON BACON (Spokesman, U.S. military): I see this as a rule of law. The problem primarily is there should be one government, one army, one security forces. And those who are firing rockets and mortars and RPGs are breaking the law and they're making life more dangerous for the Iraqis. I see it that way.
Mr. ALI MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: In Sadr City, a 27-year-old Shiite named Ali Mohammed cowers on a rooftop with his cousin as bullets whiz overhead.
Mr. MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: I hope the government operation succeeds in disarming this militia, Mohammed says, adding I want peace and stability and no more armed men roaming the streets.
But like the rest of Iraq's Shiite community, the population in Sadr City seems to be split over the conflict.
(Soundbite of shouting)
WATSON: On Saturday, hundreds of residents lined the streets of Sadr City for the funeral of three pro-Sadr Shiite fighters who were killed in battle the previous day. Mourners cursed Prime Minister Maliki and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, calling them dogs and accusing them of being agents of Iran.
As this conflict grinds on, the Sadrists and the Shiite parties in the government have accused each other of being puppets of their Iranian neighbor.
Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman sees history repeating itself in this Shiite conflict.
Mr. MAHMOUD OTHMAN (Kurdish Lawmaker): (unintelligible) happen, because we're fighting for power.
WATSON: After Saddam Hussein withdrew his forces from northern Iraq in the 1990s, rival Kurdish factions battled for control of the region, leaving thousands dead. Othman worries that if the current conflict escalates, Iraq's Shia will lose a golden opportunity.
Mr. OTHMAN: This is the first time in 500 years in Iraq Shiites gain power - first time, 500 years. That is a golden opportunity. They should stick to it, these people. But this fighting will endanger that.
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