BASRA, (IPS) - Oil-rich Basra in the south of Iraq is getting caught up in an increasingly more fierce battle between warring Shia groups.
Basra, the second largest city in Iraq with a population of 2.6 million, is the capital city of the southern Basra province, and Iraq's main port. The largest explored oil reserves in the country lie within the province.
A group led by anti-occupation Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who recently ordered his politicians to quit the Iraqi government in a defiance of the U.S.-led occupation, has said his group will no more accept Basra Governor Mohammad al-Wai'ili because he is a member of the Shia al-Fadhila Party.
Al-Fadhila withdrew from the ruling Shia political coalition in March. Al-Fadhila leaders said they refused to participate in sectarian politics. The party has declared it will continue as an independent bloc.
Despite the fact that both groups have ordered withdrawal of their representatives from the Iraqi government, they remain at odds.
The Sadr group is vying for greater control of cities in southern Iraq, and is suspected of ties to the Iranian government. Al-Fadhila opposes this policy. The governor also rejects Iran-backed meddling within Iraq's Shia political groups.
Sadr has a huge following in Iraq, estimated in the millions, and his militia is one of the most powerful in the country. Al-Fadhila has a smaller base, armed or otherwise.
But the positions on Iran are not all clear and consistent, and several positions are taken in response to personalities rather than policies.
Sadr has been at odds with Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who has close ties to Iranian religious leaders. The Fadhila Party is no friend either to Sistani, who continues to bless the disintegrating Iraqi government.
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But some broad similarities of position have not eased differences between the two groups.
"Our party offices have received threats of attacks, and we take such threats seriously," a senior al-Fadhila leader told IPS on condition of anonymity. "It is all because we would not continue the mistake of dividing government posts by sectarian standards."
The party says it is working for a unified Iraq, and accused the government, which until recently had Sadr representatives, of playing sectarian politics in Iraq. Sadr also speaks for a unified Iraq, but his Mehdi Army continues to attack Sunnis, particularly in Baghdad.
Muqtada al-Sadr recently called on his followers to demonstrate against the Basra Governor. An estimated 2,000 people joined the demonstration, far fewer than Sadr had expected.
"Those who follow the call of al-Sadr are not so many in Basra city," high school headmaster Muhammad Hussein told IPS. He blamed trouble-makers on all sides. "Only gangsters who are interested in looting the government's property would benefit from the chaos."
The last few weeks have seen several clashes between armed men from each group. In one instance gunmen believed to be from al-Sadr's Mehdi Army raided an office of the al- Fadhila party.
"It is not our dispute," Kathum Fadhil from the port authority in Basra told IPS. "It is simply a fight between thieves, so should we take part in it?"
A statement from a group of Arab tribes in the south expressed support for Grand Ayatollah al-Yaaqubi, religious advisor to al-Fadhila.
The tribes said they would back Yaaqubi against "Persian authority", referring to al-Sistani. Al-Yaaqubi is Iraqi, while al-Sistani moved to Najaf from Iran in 1953.
Misgivings about Iranian meddling seem to be rising. "Iranians are crossing the border to support their followers in Basra and other southern cities," a police officer in Basra told IPS. "They are doing their best to tear this country apart so that they can keep the Americans busy in Iraq."
Local people say British occupation forces which are largely responsible for security in southern Iraq, and particularly Basra, do not want to interfere in the new political disputes.
"They (the British military) started with evicting our Sunni Arab brothers and now they are turning against us," a Shia tribal chief told IPS. "They want the south of Iraq to be an easy bite for Iranians and their interests in Iraq."
"Iran has always had an eye on our country, but their dream is too far from coming to reality," 30-year-old Basra resident Jassim Alwan told IPS. "We will fight them the same way we fought them before, and even harder."
But most people in Basra blame the U.S.-led occupation for the collapsing situation.
"They pretend that they are fighting terror, but they are cooperating with Iranian terror in our cities," Ahmed, a member of the Ba'ath Party in Basra told IPS. "There are daily assassinations against us and other brothers who do not support the occupation, and the occupation forces are happy with that."
Several Basra residents told IPS they expect the situation in the south to get worse, and the divisions between the Shia political parties to widen.
It is not certain who will be responsible for security. A senior British military officer told reporters Monday that British forces in southern Iraq are expected to shrink from the current 7,000 to just a few hundred within two years.
Plans to withdraw the British garrison in Basra are already well under way, with two of the three bases closed. The remaining base at Basra Palace is under continuing mortar attack. British military commanders say they want to close it by this summer.
At least eight British soldiers have been killed this month, making it the third deadliest month for the British military in Iraq since the occupation began in April 2003. At least 142 British troops have been killed in Iraq.
*(Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)
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