A ceasefire crucial to recent security improvements in Iraq was today under severe strain after Moqtada al-Sadr called for “civil revolt” following a crackdown on Shia factions in Basra.
Iraqi security forces in the southern Iraqi city encountered heavy resistance as battles broke out with gunmen from Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
Officials in Basra said 22 people were killed in the clashes, with a further 58 wounded.
Following the clashes, Sadr appeared to threaten to end the ceasefire, which was declared last August.
“We call upon all Iraqis to stage sit-ins all over Iraq as a first step,” he said in a statement. “And if the people’s demands are not respected by the Iraqi government, the second step will be to declare civil revolt in Baghdad and all other provinces.”
The cleric then went on to threaten an unspecified “third step” suggesting he could abandon the ceasefire.
Sadr’s followers responded in Baghdad, where Shia gunmen were visible in several neighbourhoods and the US-protected Green Zone came under mortar or rocket attack.
The US embassy said no deaths or major casualties were reported.
Police told Reuters that Mahdi Army fighters loyal to Sadr were battling gunmen from the Badr Organisation, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council in Basra.
Major-General Ali Zaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground forces in the Basra operation, said its aim was to “wipe out all the outlaws”. “There were clashes and many outlaws have been killed,” he told Reuters.
Television footage showed smoke from explosions rising over the city and Iraqi soldiers exchanging shots with militia fighters.
“There are clashes in the streets,” a Basra resident told Reuters. “Bullets are coming from everywhere, and we can hear the sound of rocket explosions. This has been going on since dawn.”
British forces carried out air strikes in support of the Iraqi crackdown, but they were not involved on the ground.
UK forces withdrew to a base at Basra airport last year after returning control of the city to the Iraqi authorities.
The clashes broke out after the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, travelled to the area and announced a crackdown to end clashes between the three Shia factions fighting for power – the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Mahdi Army and the small Fadhila party.
The Mahdi Army ceasefire has contributed to a drop in violence over the past few months.
However, the truce is fraying, with Sadr’s allies growing increasingly angry over US and Iraqi raids against them and demanding the release of followers rounded up in recent weeks.
The cleric recently told his followers that, although the truce remained in effect, they were free to defend themselves against attacks.
The US insisted it was not going after Sadr’s followers but was targeting renegade elements that Washington believes have ties to Iran.
Iraqi authorities have put Basra under an indefinite night curfew, which began last night.
The US military today said five suspected militants had been killed while trying to plant a roadside bomb in the city.
Ten others were injured after being seen engaging in “suspicious activity”, a statement said.