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Iraq: Karbala Fighting Raises Specter Of Broader Shi'ite Clashes

Fighting in Karbala on August 28 (AFP) August 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Fighting among rival Shi'ite militias and police in the Iraqi city of Karbala has killed some 50 people, forcing authorities to curtail a major pilgrimage and order a curfew.

Reports say the clashes involved gunmen loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and those connected to the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).

Clashes between powerful Shi'ite militias in Iraq may mark the beginning of a new phase of fighting in the southern part of the country.

Local officials say that about 5,000 assassinations have occurred in Al-Basrah in the past two years.

Brits Pulling Back

The situation may become even more explosive with British troops leaving the heart of Al-Basrah. The British command has announced it will withdraw its 500 soldiers from their Al-Basrah base on August 31 and redeploy them outside the city.

Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, says British troops never managed to seal Iraq's border with nearby Iran, as they had too few soldiers for the task. Currently, there are only some 5,000 British soldiers left in Iraq -- down 50 percent from the start of the conflict.

However, Alani says that soon, without the British presence, the situation may become worse in Al-Basrah and the surrounding area.

"Definitely the British withdrawal will deepen the crisis and increase the chaos because the militias are going to fight for what the British government leaves behind," Alani says. "Definitely Basra and the whole south of Iraq is controlled by groups of criminals and political militias, which are supported by Iran and other countries."

It is not only about armed militias. Criminal gangs with no political affiliation are especially strong in the city. Local officials say that about 5,000 assassinations have occurred in the city in the past two years.

Little Central Control

Al-Basrah, a city of nearly 2 million, is the main place through which Iraq exports oil. The provinces around Al-Basrah contain some 70 percent of Iraq's oil reserves and account for some 90 percent of the government's revenue. Supply routes from Kuwait for the U.S.-led coalition also run through the region.

However, Alani says the central government has little control over the region.

A British soldier on patrol outside of Baghdad (epa file photo)

"This government is not controlling the capital Baghdad, itself," he says. "And it is not even controlling the whole Green Zone, only a part of the Green Zone. We don't expect from this government, a weak government, to be able to control Basra, which is 400 kilometers from Baghdad and in an area which, since the downfall of the regime, has come under the control of militias. This is not a government which can have influence over stability in the south or [have] control over oil production or guarantee the safety of oil operations."

Yahia Said, a researcher at the London School of Economics in Britain, has traveled to Iraq several times in recent years. He agrees there is only small hope fighting will not erupt after the British pullback.

"So far, there are very little grounds for agreement between these forces [militias], particularly at the local level," Said told RFE/RL. "So if there is an arrangement made in Najaf or in Baghdad between the leaderships, the militias associated with them may not follow such an agreement, and they [will] continue to struggle for power at the local level."

Alani says Iran could do a lot to change the situation.

Tehran's influence in the south of Iraq, he says, is "far more important and visible than the Iraqi government's control or the British control."

However, he believes Tehran is not interested in stabilizing the region.

Iraqi Insurgent Media

Iraqi Insurgent Media

GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT. RFE/RL analysts Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo have produced a book-length study on the media efforts of the insurgency in Iraq and on how global jihadists are exploiting those efforts to spread their destructive message around the world....(more)


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