Shia Battles Spread to Baquba

BAQUBA — Battles between rival Shia groups have spread from Basra in the south to Baquba in the north.

Clashes between the Mehdi Army of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organisation militia of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) have been reported in the predominantly Shia district of Hwaider in Baquba, the capital city of Diyala province located 40 km northeast of Baghdad.

The fighting for control of Baquba has left at least seven dead and several more wounded, according to local doctors.

“Police chief Ghanim al-Qureyshi gave orders to control the fighting in this district very secretly,” a policeman in the 2nd battalion told IPS on condition of anonymity. “The 2nd battalion of Iraqi police moved to Hwaider, whose people witnessed severe military clashes between the Mehdi Army and police.”

The policeman said that U.S. jets and helicopters launched attacks to target Mehdi Army fighters. But rather than Mehdi Army members, two policemen were wounded, he said. “After that, U.S. troops stormed houses to search for the Mehdi militants.” The policeman and two others said politicians from Diyala province attempted to conceal the incident.

“A big verbal quarrel took place (in the governor’s office) between al-Qureyshi, who is a Badr (Organisation) member, and followers of Sadr,” a second policeman said. “The Sadrists accused Qureyshi of targeting the Mehdi, and the governor tried to end the conflict.”

Many in Baquba believe the root of the conflict is control of money and power in the province ahead of elections slated for October. They say this was behind the recent attempt of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take control of Basra, an attempt that failed miserably.

“All the fighting is for money,” Haider Abu Ali, a resident of Baquba told IPS. “These councils are money factories. Millions of dollars can be stolen through them, and this is why Iraq has turned from bad to worse.”

A resident of Hwaider spoke with IPS on condition of anonymity. “A week ago, for the first time, written messages were dropped at night in the predominantly Shia districts and towns like Hwaider, Khirnabat and Abara,” he said. “These messages were a threat to members of the Badr Organisation, warning them they would be killed if they kept targeting the Mehdi. The messages were signed by the Mehdi Army.”

It is widely known that Badr Organisation members comprise a large portion of the government security forces.

The new inter-Shia fighting complicates the situation, as the predominantly Sunni Sahwa forces are also vying for control of parts of Baquba.

The Sahwa, referred to as Awakening Groups by the U.S. military, were formed to battle al-Qaeda. Members are paid 300 dollars a month by occupation forces, and now number over 80,000 across Iraq. The Sunni-dominated groups form a counterweight to the government security apparatus, which has long been known to comprise primarily Shia militiamen.

“The Sahwa took the position of the monitor; they are now watching how the Shia fight each other after they destroyed the province,” said Abu Ali. “They proved that Shia religious parties cannot rule the people.”

The inter-Shia fighting in Baquba has come as no surprise to residents; it was expected when the situation in Basra exploded. “When the fight started in Basra, we expected a lot of fighting in Baquba since there are Shia districts here,” a local trader said. “I, my neighbours, and relatives did not go to work because the clashes were expected.”

Residents say the fighting was covered up to maintain an illusion of Shia unity against the Sahwa forces in the city.

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)