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Rival Shiite Militias Fight in Two Cities

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Iraq today, fighting broke out between rival Shiite Muslim militiamen in two cities. The clashes involved gunmen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and members of the Badr Brigade, the paramilitary arm of the most powerful Shiite political party. That party's known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. NPR's Philip Reeves joins us from Baghdad.

And, Philip, please tell us more about today's clashes.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Well, it seems that this all began in Najaf, which, of course, is the Shiite holy city, and it centers on the office of Moqtada al-Sadr. We're hearing differing reports. One says that there was a demonstration and clashes with the police. There are allegations from Sadr officials that the police fired on the crowd. Another source in the Interior Ministry says that it was about an effort by local authorities to close down the office. Moqtada's men refused to leave, and there was violence.

It spread to Baghdad and was centered on three areas, including Moqtada al-Sadr's stronghold in Sadr City. We're hearing that al-Sadr's militia took control of three offices belonging to the Badr Brigades, we think. That's the movement associated with SCIRI, as you mentioned earlier. The US military says several hundred people are on the streets, and smoke's been seen rising in the area. There are reports also of gunfire.

BLOCK: Apart from the immediate causes that you just mentioned, are their broader differences between these Shiite parties that led to this violence today?

REEVES: Yeah, there's been a split within the Shiite community for some time. They've been vying, these different parties, for influence among themselves for a long time. We don't know precisely what's driving this outburst of trouble, but it's worth noting that tensions have been high over the draft constitution that's expected to go to the Iraqi National Assembly tomorrow. In a nutshell, al-Sadr opposes it. He and his movement are against turning Iraq into a federation, and they've been holding demonstrations against it and planning more, not only against the constitution, but also about the dismal state of public services.

Now the leader of SCIRI, by contrast, recently called for the Shiite south to be made a federal region. So there is a rift there.

BLOCK: Now I understand that Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jafari, who is himself a Shiite, went on television tonight to address this fighting. What did he have to say?

REEVES: Yes. This is a measure, I think, of the seriousness of the situation. He appealed for calm in a late-night broadcast. He condemned the attack on al-Sadr's group, which sparked the clashes in Najaf and in Baghdad. And with unaccustomed force--he's usually a pretty quiet-spoken man--Jafari said that violence against al-Sadr's movement was not acceptable. `Peace must reign,' he said. `The language of violence cannot be permitted in the new Iraq.'

BLOCK: And do you figure that warning, that admonition is likely to hold?

REEVES: Well, it's not clear. Everything will depend on whether this fighting can be contained, and there are ramifications to this. Several ministers supportive of Moqtada al-Sadr and some 20-odd members of the National Assembly say that they're suspending their membership of the government in protest of what they have described as this aggression. And this is happening on the eve of the vote that's supposed to happen on the constitution tomorrow. Although their withdrawal may not affect the vote, Moqtada al-Sadr has significant support amongst young impoverished Shia. And if their politicians aren't actually there for the vote, it's another complication to this already difficult birth of the constitution which, of course, as you know, is opposed by Sunni Arabs who, again today, reiterated their opposition to it. So these are very difficult times.

BLOCK: NPR's Philip Reeves in Baghdad.

Philip, thanks a lot.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.