Iraq’s prime minister declared a state of emergency in once peaceful and oil-rich Basra, as the sectarian and militia violence engulfing the country’s capital spread to its southern economic heartland.
In his first major policy speech since his government was sworn in on May 20, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki yesterday vowed to restore security in Iraq as attacks around the country claimed 25 lives and wounded dozen.
A bomb also struck construction workers waiting for day work today in central Baghdad, killing at least two of them and wounding 18, said police Lt. Ali Mitaab.
The bomb was hidden in a plastic bag on Tayaran Square, where the labourers normally gather in the morning to seek day work. The workers who were hit were gathered near a stall selling traditional Arab breakfast food.
Police also found the bullet-riddled body of a man clothed in a traditional robe with his hands and legs bound in the eastern New Baghdad area, police Lt. Ali Abbas said.
“We shall use an iron fist against the leaders of the gangs or those who threaten security,” he said, apparently referring to the militias as well as rival tribal groups. “And we shall ask all security departments to draw up an effective and quick plan to achieve security.”
Maliki promised to crack down on sectarian gangs in Basra and declared a month-long state of emergency, which broadens arrest powers for Iraqi security services and establishes an evening curfew.
It was the only state of emergency in effect across Iraq, according to officials. Other cities where violence is rampant, such as Baghdad and Ramadi, only have curfews.
“The state of emergency imposed in Basra for one month is made up of a group of exceptional measures imposed for a specific time by the prime minister for dealing with some events,” Interior Ministry Under-secretary Maj.-Gen. Ahmed Al-Khafaji said from Basra.
He added that “Basra is the only province in Iraq that has a state of emergency”.
Tensions have been worsening in the Shiite-dominated area, where Britain has about 8,000 soldiers, and mostly Shiite militias have been attacking Sunni Arabs and battling each other.
Maliki was addressing about 700 tribal sheikhs, religious leaders, officials, army officers and other residents in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles south-east of Baghdad.
Shouting broke out in the auditorium before Maliki spoke, with several tribal leaders accusing local officials and security forces of being behind the violence. But the prime minister calmed them down from the podium, saying “we cannot negotiate with everybody shouting”.
The Shiite prime minister travelled to Basra with his Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi.
Both leaders said security must be restored before prosperity can return to the port city.
“There are future plans to improve Basra,” al-Hashimi said. “But to prepare suitable circumstances, security must be restored and that is why we are here.”
Iran’s hand also is rumoured to be behind Shiite militias in Basra, although little evidence of a direct link has been made public.
US officials have long accused the Iranians – though not necessarily the Tehran government – of smuggling weapons to Shiite militias in Basra.
“Basra is no exception from what is taking place in Baghdad, Anbar, Nineveh and Diyala,” al-Hashimi said, referring to other volatile provinces.
“There are malignant campaigns and malignant intentions and there are malignant agendas to deepen divisions among Iraqis,” he said. “They intend to divide the country.”
In the months after the 2003 invasion, British troops enjoyed relative peace in southern Iraq compared with the restive Sunni regions further north.
But violence in the region has escalated. Nearly 140 people, mostly Sunnis but also Shiites and policemen, were killed in Basra this month alone, police Capt. Mushtaq Kadhim said.
In other violence yesterday, according to police:
:: A mortar attack killed nine people and wounded 20 in Baghdad’s Dora district;
:: A car bomb targeting a police patrol in Mosul killed at least five policemen and wounded 14;
:: Gunmen ambushed a minibus in Baqouba, north-east of Baghdad, killing at least five people and wounding three;
:: Jamal Kadhim Hassoun al-Zamili, former governor of Diwaniyah south of Baghdad, was killed in a drive-by shooting, while a bomb hidden in an air conditioner killed the mayor of Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad.
:: A 24-year-old broadcaster for al-Iraqiya TV, Ali Jaafar, was gunned down near his home in Baghdad. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the slaying, saying insurgents have frequently targeted the station because of it’s ties to the US-backed government;
:: Gunmen killed a Shiite muazzin as he was leaving his house to go to the Imam Ali Mosque in Baghdad;
:: Police in the northern city of Mosul said gunmen killed two civilians and wounded another;
:: At least 19 bodies were found in Baghdad, many blindfolded and handcuffed, apparent victims of sectarian killings.