31 killed at Iraqi religious festival
BAGHDAD — A power struggle between rival Shiite groups erupted during a religious festival in Karbala on Tuesday, and at least 31 people were killed by gunmen with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades who fought street battles amid crowds of pilgrims.
Witnesses said gunmen from the Mahdi army, the militia loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, traded fire with security forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. His government coalition is dominated by two religious Shiite parties that compete with Sadr for power and influence among Iraq’s Shiite majority.
Government forces in Karbala and other towns in southern and central Iraq are dominated by the Badr organization, an Iranian-trained former militia loyal to Iraq’s largest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which vies with the Sadrists for control of Shiite-dominated central and southern Iraq.
The security forces imposed an indefinite curfew on Karbala at nightfall Tuesday, fearing that the Sadr-Badr tensions could escalate out of control as both sides sought control of the streets. Two provincial governors belonging to the SIIC have already been assassinated in southern Iraq this month, although the Sadrists deny involvement.
As health officials in Karbala put the toll at 31 dead and 175 wounded, the violence appeared to be spreading to other cities, although attacks in Baghdad and Diwaniya were on a much smaller scale.
In Karbala, an Iraqi employee of The New York Times said pilgrims fled in panic but were unable to get transport out of the paralyzed city as Mahdi army fighters took up positions around Karbala’s twin golden-domed shrines and traded fire with the police.
An aide to Sadr said the cleric was calling for calm. “Moktada al-Sadr demands calm and asks the Sadrist followers not to take part in the disturbances,” the aide, Hazem al-Araji, told Reuters.
One of the city’s many pilgrim hotels was set ablaze after fuel tanks on the roof were apparently struck by bullets.
One policeman speaking from his position in the rapidly emptying plaza between the city’s two golden-domed shrines to Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein said: “Hundreds of Mahdi army have occupied several hotels near the two shrines. The battle is fierce and we are defending our posts here.”
Meanwhile in Fallujah… From the LA Times, Aug. 28:
10 die in mosque bombing in Iraq
BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber detonated a vest packed with explosives in a Sunni Arab mosque in Fallouja on Monday, killing 10 worshipers, including the imam, and shattering what had been a period of relative calm for a region that was once the most volatile hotbed of Iraq’s insurgency.
The attack at the end of evening prayers was blamed on the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq by American military officials and a Fallouja police official.
The blast, which killed Imam Abdul-Sattar Jumaili and nine other men and injured 11, underscored the persistent violence gripping Iraq despite the recent U.S. troop buildup and a fresh pledge by contentious Iraqi government officials to work together.
No further details are available, but it certainly seems to be part of the escalating trend of Sunni-on-Sunni violence. The LAT does provide further details on the Shi’ite-on-Shi’ite violence in Karbala:
The violence in crowded Karbala was said to have occurred when police believed to be aligned with the militia loyal to Najaf Shiite leader Abdelaziz Hakim waved his son’s bodyguards through checkpoints without searches. That enraged members of the rival Mahdi Army loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
The militiamen clashed, drawing in marchers fed up with what they considered excessive security, and ended in an eruption of gunfire that left three pilgrims dead, said Ali Mohammed Hussein, a Najaf student who witnessed the incident.
In both cases, there is an element of national liberation struggle: violence between collaborationist (Badrist, Sunni “Guardians”) and insurgent forces (Sadrist, al-Qaeda). But there is a stronger element of sectarian civil war: which faction will dominate each sectarian community to lead the struggle against the rival sectarian community for supremacy in Iraq. This is dramatically not what Vietnam looked like.
See our last post on sectarian war in Iraq.