BASRA, Iraq—Iraqi security forces battled the Mehdi Army militia in Basra on Tuesday in a drive to win control of the southern oil city, but violence and unrest spread to Baghdad and other cities.
Police and health workers said at least 12 people were killed in the fighting in districts of central and northern Basra where Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army has a strong presence.
In a statement read out by a senior aide on Tuesday, Sadr called on Iraqis to stage sit-ins all over Iraq and said he would declare a "civil revolt" if attacks by U.S. and Iraqi security forces continued. He also threatened a "third step", but said it was too early to announce what it would be.
Iraqi security forces battled the Mehdi Army militia in Basra on Tuesday in a drive to win control of the southern oil city, but violence appeared to be spreading to Baghdad and other cities.
Two powerful factions of Iraq's Shi'ite majority, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Mehdi Army militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, are fighting for power in Basra along with a smaller Shi'ite party, Fadhila.
Here are some details on the main players:
* Sadr Movement:
-- Loyalists of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are widely seen as the most influential group on the streets of Basra. Sadr's political movement and Mehdi Army militia have popular support. Critics accuse them of using violence to impose strict Islamic rules, a charge Sadrists deny.
-- The Sadrists recently signed a truce with other major Shi'ite parties, agreeing that militia members would not carry guns openly as long as security forces do not target them.
-- Unlike the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Sadr opposes the idea of federalism for the south.
-- The militia has kept a low profile since Sadr called a ceasefire last August and extended it last month.
-- But gunbattles in Baghdad and the southern city of Kut last week have raised fears that it may be unravelling at a time when the U.S. military is withdrawing 20,000 troops.
* Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council:
-- The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) has a strong following in Basra and, like the Sadrists, has built up support by running charities to help the poor.
-- The party, engaged in a power struggle with Sadr's followers across much of the south, joined Sadr in opposing the governor of Basra, who belongs to the smaller Shi'ite Fadhila Party.
-- The Supreme Council favours the creation of a large federal region with wide autonomy that would include the nine southern mainly Shi'ite provinces.
* Fadhila Party:
-- The Fadhila Party is a small Shi'ite Islamist party which has little clout in other parts of the country but controls the position of governor in Basra. Fadhila is believed to have influence in the Southern Oil Company, which through exports from Basra supplies nearly all of the government's funds.
-- The party's spiritual leader is Sheikh Mohammed al-Yaqoubi, a student of Moqtada al-Sadr's father, a connection that has heightened rivalry between the groups.
-- Fadhila, fearful of plans for a Shi'ite super-region which might be controlled from the holy city of Najaf, favours autonomy for Basra.
* Security Forces:
-- Iraq has 30,000 soldiers and police to keep the peace in Basra. They are commanded by army Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji and police chief Major-General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, both of whom were appointed in June as part of the central government's plan to combat militia influence.
-- The commanders have spoken out against militia violence, making them popular with Basra residents. U.S. and British commanders rank them among the best generals in Iraq. Both Furaiji and Khalaf have survived several assassination attempts.
* British Forces:
-- Hoshiyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister poured scorn on British forces in southern Iraq earlier this month, saying they were "doing nothing" and had allowed the city of Basra to be overrun by militants.
-- After the handover of Basra, Britain has around 4,100 troops based in southern Iraq, almost all of them in a fortified encampment at Basra air base just outside the city.
-- Britain had hoped to draw down at least half of the troops left in Iraq and possibly pull out the entire force by the end of the year, but those prospects are looking less likely because of renewed violence.
Columns of black smoke rose above Basra and explosions and machinegun fire could be heard. Reuters Television pictures showed masked gunmen firing mortars in the street, while others drove around in captured Iraqi army and police vehicles.
"There are clashes in the streets. Bullets are coming from everywhere and we can hear the sound of rocket explosions. This has been going on since dawn," Basra resident Jamil told Reuters by telephone as he cowered in his home.
Four mortars and a Katyusha rocket fell on Basra Palace, the former British military base that is now the local police headquarters. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.
The Mehdi Army, which has thousands of fighters, has kept a relatively low profile since last August when Sadr called a ceasefire, one of the main factors behind the sharp reduction in sectarian violence in Iraq in recent months.
But the militia has chafed at the truce, saying U.S. and Iraqi forces exploited it to carry out indiscriminate arrests.
Sadr's followers launched what they called "a civil disobedience campaign" in Baghdad on Monday, forcing store-owners to close in several districts.
Pro-Sadr students forced Mustansiriya University in Baghdad to close on Tuesday. Members of Sadr's movement said the protest would spread to other towns and cities from Wednesday.
Police sources said Sadr supporters seized control of five districts in the southern town of Kut on Tuesday after clashes between gunmen and police.
Mehdi Army fighters also battled police in two neighbourhoods in the centre of the southern town of Hilla. A Reuters witness reported hearing the sound of intense gunfire.
In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces sealed off the Mehdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, a sprawling slum of 2 million people, after the militia ordered police and soldiers off the streets.
Police said fighting erupted in several Sadr City neighbourhoods between Mehdi Army fighters and the Badr Organisation, the armed wing of a rival Shi'ite faction.
Baghdad's Green Zone, the government and diplomatic compound, was hit by several salvoes of rockets during the day. U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover said they had been fired from Sadr City.
Police imposed curfews in the southern cities of Kut, Hilla, Nassiriya, Samawa and Diwaniya.
Maliki In Basra
In Basra two ambulance drivers said they had transported eight bodies to Basra's Sadr Education hospital. A police major at al-Mawana hospital said four bodies were received.
"This operation will not come to an end in Basra without the law prevailing and being respected," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
But analysts said the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was in Basra to oversee the operation, would struggle to overcome militias who were looking to keep hold of their share of Basra's oil wealth.
Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the two most powerful Shi'ite factions in Iraq, have been vying for control of Basra along with a smaller Shi'ite party, Fadhila, which controls key oil industry jobs in Basra.
Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said Sadr's followers were angry because they believed the United States had chosen to support SIIC's Badr Organisation.
"The fact that Sadr called upon his followers to implement a civil disobedience campaign reflects the pressure building upon him. There is huge frustration among the group's rank and file."
Basra's oilfields hold 80 percent of Iraq's oil wealth. Iraqi oil industry sources said the fields, which exported 1.54 million barrels of oil per day in February, were operating normally on Tuesday.
The British military said no British ground forces were involved in the operation, but warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition were carrying out aerial surveillance.