Militant Fighting Spreads Across Southern Iraq Clashes between security forces and Shiite militia fighters are spreading throughout southern Iraq. In Basra, Iraq's prime minister is overseeing the offensive against the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and reports indicate that the operation is not going well. In Baghdad, the situation is also "extremely tense."
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Militant Fighting Spreads Across Southern Iraq

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Militant Fighting Spreads Across Southern Iraq

Militant Fighting Spreads Across Southern Iraq

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Iraqi army assault on the country's most powerful Shiite militia continues today in Iraq's oil-rich southern city of Basra. Thousands of Iraqi security forces have been trying to dislodge the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is overseeing the offensive against Sadr's forces.

Reports from the scene say that the operation is not going well, and one indication of that is that Maliki has cancelled plans to attend an Arab summit in Syria this coming weekend.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us on the line now from Baghdad. And Lourdes, tell us what you know about the fighting down in Basra?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the clashes continue to be fierce today. Residents that we've spoken to are reporting close fighting in at least three neighborhoods. We know for now that the Mahdi Army is still controlling large areas of Basra. Some reports say 40, some reports say 50 percent. And the Iraqi forces seem to be in certain areas outmanned and outgunned.

We've also heard reports of Iraqi police and army units taking off their uniforms and joining the Mahdi Army. We don't yet know how widespread this is, but certain units who are from Basra have joined, it seems, the other side.

We're also hearing that Iraq's oil installations in Basra have been affected. There's possibly been an attack on one of the pipelines and the refinery may have shut down. When I use the word, may, maybe, it seems, it's very hard to get accurate information.

We had today Major General Abdul Aziz Mohammed Jassim, who's the ministry of defense director of operations, give a press conference to the Baghdad press corps. He says that everything is misinformation and that the fight is going well. They say that any bad news is completely wrong.

So we're hearing from our local stringers and the residents that we talked to one version of the story, and for now, the Iraqi government is giving a very different version of the story.

MONTAGNE: And I gather you've also been receiving reports of a humanitarian crisis there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We called two of the biggest hospitals in Basra, and as of sunrise today, we have numbers that show 262 people killed so far and over 300 wounded. Those numbers include militants and civilians. We don't really have a breakdown of how many militants and how many civilians. Residents say that water and electricity have been cut off. Residents are having trouble getting medical care. The shops are closed. Food is scarce.

I spoke to one Basra resident who was on his roof trying to fix the water tank, and he was shot in the leg. And he is still in his house. He's not been able to make it to the hospital yet to get medical care. One small example of what is happening, he says, across the city there.

MONTAGNE: And what about Baghdad? What's the situation there?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've heard shooting and rocket fire and mortar rounds, Renee, from the early morning here. The situation is extremely tense. Let's start with the vast Shiite slum of Sadr city. There was a large demonstration where they burned in effigy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, chanting for his overthrow. Mahdi Army members have placed roadside bombs in many of the main streets. They are heavily armed with new weapons and equipment, we are hearing. Amassed Shiite militia members have been attacking police and army checkpoints in western Baghdad, in another area, from Mansour all the way to Katamiya, that sort of half of western Baghdad, where there are clashes right now. In the southwest, in the neighborhood of Shurta, Mahdi Army member have been going house-to-house, demanding that men of fighting age join them. So we're seeing an explosion across Shiite areas in the capital.

MONTAGNE: You know, Lourdes, a political question. Prime Minister Maliki's government is dominated by Shiites. His whole coalition was originally formed with Moqtada al-Sadr, and many accused him of politically beholden to the cleric. Couldn't this offensive be a sign that the government is serious about taking back the country?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes and no. Nouri al-Maliki has staked a lot of political capital on this fight. Basra has been a place that's been completely lawless, and there is no doubt that this operation needed to happen. The militias have been running Basra for quite some time.

No, because the Mahdi Army and the Sadrs will tell you that they withdrew from the government coalition, and they feel that this attack right now on them has a political dimension. They feel that Nouri al-Maliki is doing it ahead of provincial elections on October 1st, because his party and parties allied to him will be facing off against the Sadrists, and they feel that Nouri al-Maliki is trying to weaken them ahead of those very crucial provincial elections on October 1st.

MONTAGNE: Lourdes, thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, speaking from Baghdad.

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