Basra and a Mahdi Army Resurgence?

AP reports that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is concerned about a wave of assassinations and killings in the southern port city of Basra:

‘ A spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, called on the Iraqi government to stop violence he said was increasingly plaguing southern Iraq and warned the inaction could further alienate Iraqis from the political process.

Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai said 200 people were killed in the past three months in the city of Basra alone, in addition to kidnappings, and he accused the government of failing to hold the attackers accountable or to stop oil smuggling operations.

Al-Karbalai’s figures could not be independently verified, but his complaint was a sign of growing frustration over rampant clashes and violence in the mainly Shiite south largely blamed on rival militia factions.’

Aljazeera reported this week that the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr had routed the Basra police force and taken over the center of the city. These allegations are exaggerated, but it is possible that the Mahdi Army is growing in power in this key southern port through which most of Iraq’s oil exports flow. The report said:

‘ The militia took over the city in clashes with the Iraqi police and reports say that the fighting was still going on. According to Al Jazeera, during the clashes, the local police chief, Muhammad Qaji, was forced to flee the city and the militants took control of the city’s main power centres and deployed their men along Basra’s main streets. Currently, at least four people are dead – three Iraqi soldiers and a militant – and at least 10 are injured. The men of the Mahdi army have also reportedly captured 50 police officers. The most violent clashes were in the city’s central district of al-Andalus district. ‘

In contrast, AFP reported the police side of the story, in which there was a little trouble but they had it under control. (Though the police case that the skirmishes were minor is undermined by their apparent need to exaggerate the number of foreign residents they had arrested, by giving the figures from way back last June to present.)

Millenarian Shiites in Basra believe that the US and British forces are creating chaos in Iraq in order to distract Shiites from the Second Coming of their Promised One.

AP also reports that the Mahdi Army is reconsidering its truce with the rival Badr Corps, another major Shiite paramilitary. The Sadrists complain that the truce has yielded no tangible benefit to them.

The Mahdi Army is also considering ending its truce with the US military, having been angered by American raids on the militia’s leaders.

At the Global Affairs group blog, Farideh Farhi on the significance of Bush’s new sanctions on Iran; and Barnett Rubin on Afghanistan.

At the Napoleon’s Egypt blog, Gen. Bonaparte issues orders for the organization of Egypt’s provinces, appointing provincial governing councils, police chiefs and tax collectors.