Wednesday, August 29, 2007

And Ramadan does not begin until Sept.12-oi vey!

Gunbattles rage between Sadr and rival Shiite factions
Iraq evacuates Kerbala pilgrims as 25 killed KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters)

Police imposed a curfew Tuesday on the Iraqi city of Kerbala and ordered more than one million pilgrims to leave after two days of violence claimed least 25 lives during a Shiite religious festival.

Local authorities began evacuating pilgrims as a battle raged between Iraqi security forces and gunmen near two of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines.

The fighting appeared to be between gunmen loyal to the fiery Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, possibly members of his Mehdi Army militia, and police linked to the rival Shi'ite political movement, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and its Badr Organization.

Police said a curfew had been imposed and buses were being organised to evacuate the pilgrims, most of whom had walked from Baghdad and elsewhere to mark the 9th century birth of Mohammad al-Mahdi, the last of 12 imams Shi'ites revere as saints.

Reuters witnesses in the city, 110 km (68 miles) south of Baghdad, could hear the sound of intense gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades being fired and saw columns of smoke rising from the centre of the city, apparently from cars that police said had been set ablaze.

Police said gunmen armed with automatic weapons and pistols were trying to take control of the area around the Imam Ali and Imam Abbas shrines, the focal point of Tuesday's ceremonies.

Hazem al-Araji, a senior aide to Sadr, told Reuters from Kerbala that the clashes erupted when police objected to pilgrims chanting pro-Sadr slogans and began beating them.

Another Sadr aide, Ammar al-Saidi, said the treatment of the pilgrims had enraged Sadrists in Kerbala and sparked revenge attacks on the security forces.

The Sadrists and SIIC, the two biggest Shi'ite blocs in parliament, are locked in a power struggle for control of towns and cities in Iraq's predominantly Shi'ite south. The police in many of these towns are seen to be loyal to Badr.

Analysts fear the struggle for dominance will intensify ahead of provincial elections expected to take place next year.

The fighting is likely to be seen as embarrassing for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is keen to show that his security forces are ready to take control of security from U.S.-led forces.

One of his two deputies, Barham Salih, a Kurd, warned in an interview with Reuters late on Monday that an early U.S. troop pullout would trigger a full-scale civil war.

"It will lead to an all-out civil war, it will lead to a regional war in my opinion because the fate of Iraq is crucial to the regional balance and to regional security," Salih said.

Tuesday's violence followed clashes late on night between police and pilgrims in the city which the local hospital said seven pilgrims were killed and 35 wounded.

Some 10,000 police officers and 5,000 Iraqi soldiers had been deployed for the festival.

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