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In Basra, in Southern Iraq, there have been violent clashes between members of Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia and Iraqi security forces. As of nightfall today, police said 26 people had been killed and 110 wounded. And the violence has spread to other Shiite cities in the south and to Baghdad. Moqtada al-Sadr has called on his supporters to wage a civil disobedience campaign in retaliation for the crackdown.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has this report.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The fighting in Basra began late last night as the Iraqi army, under air cover from the U.S. and British military, moved through the city. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fought back as they entered neighborhoods controlled by the militia. Basra resident Iman Mohammed(ph) spoke to NPR by phone.
Ms. IMAN MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) Bullets are hitting the doors and windows of our house. We are hiding in one room because we were so scared. This is the worst fight yet ever seen in Basra.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went to Basra yesterday and announced that there would be a crackdown on the militias there. He is still in the southern port city overseeing the operation. Despite the fighting, Mohammed says, she supports the offenses. For years, the people there, she says, have been living in fear.
Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) The situation in Basra is very bad. We have many groups and militias, and people are killed in the street - young men, women, doctors, engineers, everyone is targeted here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Basra was under the nominal control of British forces until last August when they effectively withdrew. Still, for years, the militias have had its way there. Assassinations, particularly of women, gang activity and smuggling have made Basra one of the most lawless cities in Iraq.
But the conflict in Basra has wider implications. The Mahdi Army, one of the most well-armed and feared groups in Iraq, has been observing a ceasefire for the past seven months since the U.S. surge began.
Dr. JOOST HILTERMANN (Middle East Project Director, International Crisis Group): The Sadr movement under the leadership of Moqtada al-Sadr and his closest lieutenants made a strategic decision to respond to this surge by lying low, not to stick their necks and not to be - expose themselves in order not to be attacked and to be decimated, and to wait out the American departure from Iraq which they expect.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joost Hiltermann is with the International Crisis Group. He says if the ceasefire collapses, there will be serious consequences.
Dr. HILTERMANN: You may see a general return of the Sadr movement and its followers in the various localities in the south, and possibly even in Baghdad to armed fighting. And I think that would be a very dangerous development. It would certainly put an end to whatever relative quiet the surge has created so far.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Already the unrest in Basra is spreading and comes as the U.S. is preparing to drawdown its troop levels. There is fighting in the southern cities of Hilla and Kut where Mahdi Army members have taken over five neighborhoods. More ominously, fighting has spread to Baghdad's vast Shiite slum of Sadr City, a Mahdi Army stronghold. Clashes between the U.S. military and Mahdi militants could be heard after nightfall.
Ali Mohammed(ph) is a Sadr City resident who was reached by phone earlier in the day as the Mahdi Army took to the streets there.
Mr. ALI MOHAMMED (Resident, Sadr City): (Through translator) They started by dissolving the police checkpoints. They told all the students to go home. They closed the shops and they cleared the streets.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Several other Baghdad neighborhoods have also seen increased Mahdi Army activity. In response to the Basra offensive, Moqtada al-Sadr called today for a nationwide strike and civil disobedience campaign. But many of his commandos will not feel that it's enough.
The head of the Sadr office in Basra, Harith al Athari, told NPR by phone that the government and U.S. forces have taken advantage of the ceasefire so far.
Mr. HARITH AL ATHARI (Director, Moqtada al-Sadr's Office, Basra): (Through translator) It's not just Basra. Sadrists had become targets all over Iraq. That's the problem. We are being attacked for political reasons, and not for security reasons.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the past few months, many Sadrists have been arrested and jailed because the government is trying, he says, to destroy them as a political force, ahead of provincial elections in October.
In 2005, followers of Moqtada al-Sadr boycotted the vote. This time, they're going to participate and are expected to do well, eating into the dominance of parties allied to the Shiite-led government. As night fell, Basra was quiet, and its streets were empty. Sadr has not called a formal end to the ceasefire, but he has said his followers can defend themselves and he's put his commanders on high alert.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
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