ALEX CHADWICK, host:
In Iraq, where things have been fairly stable lately, there's been a troubling development in the last few days. A powerful Shiite militia group that's been quiet for months is suddenly reasserting itself and battling Iraqi government forces. They're shooting at each other in Iraq's third largest city, Basra. And in Baghdad, the militia leader, the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is calling for civil disobedience. On the phone from Iraq is Sudarsan Raghavan. He's the Washington Post Baghdad Bureau Chief. Sudarsan, update us on the situation in Basra, can you?
Mr. SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN (Baghdad Bureau Chief, Washington Post): Absolutely. What we're hearing now, there are clashes that erupted earlier this morning. From what we're hearing now, we've got 13 gunmen who have been killed and six civilians and three policemen, but those numbers could easily rise. What it really shows is how volatile Basra is and how determined the Iraqi government is to try to control it. It's a test of how much Iraq can stand on its own, but at the same time, you know, we're seeing, you know, an immense power struggle unfold there amongst rival militias. And it really remains to be seen what sort of control the Iraqi government can exert over there.
CHADWICK: U.S. forces once considered Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, as you say, the Mahdi Army, an extreme threat, but then he declared the cease fire back in August and said his guys weren't going to fight anymore. So what has happened to bring about this change and how widespread is it?
Mr. RAGHAVAN: What's happened since the cease-fire is that we've been seeing a growing number of rates in mass arrests of Sadr followers in southern cities like Diwania and Kut, and this has enraged many of the Sadr leaders and top Mahdi army commanders. In recent weeks, we've seen many of them demand Muqtada al-Sadr to remove the cease-fire, so they can retaliate and protect themselves. They feel the government and the U.S. military is taking advantage of his cease-fire. Basically, you know, if he removes his cease-fire, the violence could very well go up again, and all the successes the U.S. analysts declared over the past few months could evaporate.
CHADWICK: We've talked about the situation in the south. What about in Baghdad? What's going on around Baghdad?
Mr. RAGHAVAN: Right, I had a chance to drive around Baghdad today. In Mahdi army areas - controlled areas like Sadr City, what I saw was, so many shops were closed. Roads were barricaded with burning tires, and there were Mahdi army fighters basically directing traffic. What was really interesting was that, yeah, I didn't see a single policeman or Iraqi soldier inside Sadr City. In fact, there were all pretty much outside the whole area. But in other parts of Baghdad, it seems life is still normal. In the central areas, we saw a lot of traffic. So much of this is happening pretty much in areas that Sadr controls.
CHADWICK: Well, Sudarsan, what do you make of all this? I mean, are things falling apart there or is this just kind of a temporary blip in what had been a period, as I say, of relative stability?
Mr. RAGHAVAN: What's really clear is that there are growing frustrations amongst the Sadr leaders, and what's also clear is that the cease-fire is a key reason why violence levels have decreased over several months, and this is coming straight from U.S. commanders. They acknowledge this completely. Certainly Iraqi's are concerned, they're keeping a close eye on what's unfolding in Muqtada al-Sadr's world.
CHADWICK: Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post Baghdad Bureau Chief, thank you.
Mr. RAGHAVAN: My pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.