ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
As we've heard from Corey Flintoff, the fighting this week in Karbala and, more generally, in southern Iraq isn't so much a Sunni-Shiite conflict. It's a conflict among various Shiite factions. And for more about what's at stake in that conflict and what role the Iran might be playing in it, we're going to turn now to Vali Nasr who's the author of the book "The Shia Revival."
Vali Nasr, in Karbala, first of all, who is fighting against whom and why?
VALI NASR: Well, this time around, the fight is between the two big Shia political factions and militias - the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr and the battle corps associated with a large Shia party, the SCIRI party, which is now being largely integrated into the security forces in Karbala.
And the battle is over who controls this important shrine city, which is of enormous symbolic significance for Shias, but which also has very robust financial resources owing to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who visit the city on a yearly basis.
SIEGEL: But the differences between those two big groups, are they doctrinal religious difference or ideological differences or is it affiliation by clan or neighborhood or what?
NASR: It's purely political. In other words, the issue in southern Iraq is that you have many different political factions particularly these two, which also have the most powerful militias. And there is a price on the table, which is the control of the Shia south in Iraq. And they have been engaged in pitch battles with one another over the past three, four years over the control of various Shia cities, the trade roots control of government services and resources.
And this battle that happened yesterday is merely the most ferocious and latest episode of the battle between two Shia titans in the south, which are likely to fight one another until one of them comes on the top as the most powerful Shia force in southern Iraq.
SIEGEL: But you say it's all about power. There's no particular idea riding on one of these groups as opposed to the other.
NASR: No, they do differ on political issues. For instance, the SCIRI party has supported the idea of federalism with a super-Shia state in the south, whereas Moqtada al-Sadr has favored the united government and a united Iraq. But there is no deep ideological divide here. There are no disputes over a form of government, over a form of Shia theology that is driving them. It is essentially a power play between rising militia political forces that are aiming for a control of the south.
SIEGEL: Does Iran back one side as opposed to the other in this conflict?
NASR: Iran has traditionally backed both of them. The battle corps was trained by the Iranian revolutionary guards and its leadership came from Iran after the fall of Saddam.
After the fall of Saddam, Iran also began to established ties with Moqtada al- Sadr. What has happened recently is that the battle corps has become much closer to the United States and to the Iraqi security forces. Its forces are better organized, are more centralized, have a very clear command and control structure, have been integrated now into Iraqi security forces, and have, on occasion, even been used by the United States in battles in north and west of Baghdad.
Whereas the Mahdi Army is now the target of the United States' security operations is much more disorganized. And Iran has been supplying both of them, but the battle corps has now come closer to the United States, and I think the Mahdi Army is now growing closer to Iran.
And as we're seeing a growing escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States over security control of the south, we are also seeing a greater degree of tensions between their respective clients.
SIEGEL: Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival" and soon to be professor at Tufts University. Thank you very much for talking with us.
NASR: Thank you.
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