BAGHDAD, (AP) – Iraqi forces clashed with Shiite militias in the southern oil port of Basra on Tuesday as a security plan to clamp down on violence between rival militia factions in the region began.
With tensions rising, Muqtada al-Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf ordered field commanders with his Mahdi Army militia to go on high alert and prepare “to strike the occupiers” and their Iraqi allies, a militia officer said.
The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t supposed to release the information, also said the movement had ordered its supporters to join a civil disobedience campaign nationwide.
Al-Sadr has imposed a cease-fire on his militia fighters, a move that is one of the key factors in a steep drop in violence over the past several months.
Gunmen also attacked an office and clashed with guards from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council at the entrance of Baghdad’s main Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, police said. SIIC’s armed wing, the Badr Brigade, is the main rival of the Mahdi Army.
The cease-fire has come under severe strains in recent weeks as U.S. and Iraqi forces detained followers they accuse of belonging to breakaway factions from the movement. Elements from the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade also have frequently clashed in the southern Shiite heartland.
Col. Karim al-Zaidi, spokesman for the Iraq military, said security forces concentrated heavily in Basra’s center encountered stiff resistance from Mahdi Army gunmen.
AP Television News video showed smoke from explosions rising over the city and Iraqi soldiers exchanging gunfire with militia members.
Maj. Abbas Youssef, a police officer in the Basra hospital, said four civilians had been killed and at least 18 injured in the fighting.
The clashes broke out after Iraqi authorities set an indefinite nighttime curfew on the city starting Monday. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also traveled to the volatile area to announce a new crackdown aimed at quelling rising violence between rival Shiite factions vying for power.
The U.S. military said Tuesday that five suspected militants were killed in Basra while attempting to place a roadside bomb. Ten others were injured after being spotted conducting suspicious activity, the statement said.
Security in Basra, about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, had been steadily declining well before the British handed over responsibility for security to the Iraqis on Dec. 16.
British troops remained at their base at the airport outside Basra and were not involved in the ground fighting Tuesday, according to the British Ministry of Defense. Air support was being provided, but a spokesman could not say if it was U.S. or British planes.
“We have a capacity to provide air and other specialist support if needed, but at this time British involvement is minimal,” the spokesman said, declining to be identified in accordance with department policy.
Last month, a British journalist working for CBS and his Iraqi interpreter were kidnapped from a hotel. The Iraqi was released after al-Sadr’s office negotiated a deal, but the Briton remains in custody.
Al-Sadr’s organization threatened that tensions will escalate in Basra if members of al-Sadr’s Shiite Mahdi Army are targeted.
“We are calling for calm, but this new security plan has the wrong timing,” Harith al-Edhari, the director of al-Sadr’s office in Basra, said Tuesday. “This plan is a government scheme to target the Sadrists as they did in Diwaniyah and Muthanna.”
Al-Sadr’s followers also have accused the Shiite-dominated government of exploiting the cease-fire to target the cleric’s supporters in advance of provincial elections expected this fall. They have demanded the release of supporters rounded up in recent weeks.
The cleric recently told his followers that although the truce remains in effect, they were free to defend themselves against attacks.
U.S. officials have insisted they are not going after Sadrists who respect the cease-fire but are targeting renegade elements, known as special groups, that the Americans believe have ties to Iran.
The U.S. military has accused Iran of arming and funding Shiite extremists to fight American forces in Iraq. Iran denies the allegation.
On Monday, al-Maliki relieved the top two security officials in Basra, officials said.
At least one Iraqi battalion has already been sent to Basra, an official in the defense ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t supposed to talk to the media. Other battalions may be called from Iraq’s southern provinces.
The clashes follow recent fighting elsewhere in the country between U.S. and Iraqi forces and factions of the Mahdi Army.
Meanwhile, the FBI said it has recovered the remains of two kidnapped U.S. contractors in Iraq. The agency identified the contractors as Ronald Withrow of Roaring Springs, Texas, and John Roy Young of Kansas City, Missouri.
Withrow worked for JPI Worldwide when he was kidnapped near Basra in January 2007. Young worked for Crescent Security Group when he was kidnapped in November 2006 in a separate incident.
The FBI said the investigation into the kidnappings is ongoing.