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Deadly Shi'a Infighting Persists As Iraqi Deadline Nears

25 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gathered outside the cleric's offices in the central Iraqi city of Al-Najaf on 25 August, apparently awaiting instructions following deadly clashes that have highlighted divisions within the country's Shi'a community, Radio Free Iraq reported.

The violence comes as political leaders of Iraq's Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurdish communities prepare for a crucial session of the National Assembly today to determine the fate of efforts to draft a new constitution.

Radio Free Iraq's Al-Basrah correspondent reported that the offices of one of the country's strongest Shi'ite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), were burned to the ground overnight.

Retaliatory attacks throughout the country have been directed at the offices of SCIRI and the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, another major Shi'ite party, since fighting broke out between al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and security forces in Al-Najaf yesterday.

Reuters reported that a policeman in Al-Amarah was killed today in early morning clashes with Al-Mahdi Army militiamen who had occupied the offices of SCIRI's Badr Organization. Badr forces are ostensibly the armed wing of SCIRI, although the group claims it disarmed last year and now pursues social support work.

Badr Organization Secretary-General Hadi al-Amiri told Al-Jazeera television in an interview yesterday that the outbreak of violence was premeditated. "There must be elements that motivated these people. Young men staged a demonstration [in Al-Najaf] and at first they demanded the dismissal of the governor and his deputy," al-Amiri said. "Things were premeditated, because when they arrived at the Martyr al-Sadr office they attacked the office. This means there was a premeditated plan. Demanding the dismissal of the governor, deputy governor, and police commander was a cover for this demonstration." Al-Amiri blamed the "enemies of Iraq" and the enemies of the Shi'a for "trying to sow sedition among us."

Sunni Officials Protest

Twenty-one National Assembly members and two ministers in Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's cabinet have threatened to resign to protest the purported attacks on al-Sadr's office in Al-Najaf, RFI reported today.

"This is a savage action done by uncivilized people. They don't have any Iraqi honor," parliamentarian and al-Sadr supporter Nassar Zeghayir al-Rubay'i said, according to

Health Minister Abd al-Muttalib Muhammad Ali and Transportation Minister Salam al-Maliki threatened to resign as well.

Meanwhile, as Iraqis await today's National Assembly session on the constitution, al-Sadr spokesman Jalil Musawi said on 24 August: "We are ready by a single phone call within a minute to defeat the constitution by voting against it in six provinces: Al-Diwaniyah, Samawah, Al-Nasiriyah, Al-Amarah, Al-Basrah, and Sadr City in Baghdad," reported today.

Unclear Circumstances

Fighting broke out between al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and security forces in Al-Najaf yesterday, sparking attacks against SCIRI and the Al-Da'wah Party in at least six other cities. Al-Sadr today appealed for a halt to the clashes.

There are conflicting reports as to what sparked the initial fighting in Al-Najaf, which led to the burning of al-Sadr's office and reportedly to the deaths of between five and eight al-Sadr followers, according to Arab media.

Al-Sadr supporters blamed police, who they claimed were being backed by SCIRI, for attacking demonstrators in Al-Najaf and sparking the ensuing violence.

SCIRI officials denied any knowledge or support for the attack on al-Sadr's offices.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister al-Ja'fari appealed for calm in a press conference overnight, saying an investigative team would be dispatched to Al-Najaf today to investigate the incident.

Al-Sadr supporters reportedly attacked the prime minister's political party's office in Baghdad yesterday, and Al-Mahdi militiamen clashed with police as well as SCIRI and Al-Da'wah supporters in Al-Nasiriyah, Al-Amarah, Al-Basrah, Al-Hillah, Al-Diwaniyah, and in Samawah, international media reported today.

RFI also reported fighting between al-Sadr forces and the SCIRI's Badr Brigade in Ba'qubah today.

[For more on Iraq, see our dedicated The New Iraq webpage.]

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