Heavy Fighting In Southern Iraqi Oil HubBy REUTERS
March 25, 2008 - Filed at 5:01 a.m. ET
BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Heavy fighting erupted on Tuesday in the southern oil city of Basra where Iraqi security forces launched a major operation at dawn against powerful militias, military officials and witnesses said.
A Reuters witness in the city reported seeing black smoke over northern districts and hearing explosions and machinegun fire. A hospital source said "tens of wounded" were arriving at hospitals with some too busy to accept more casualties.
Television pictures showed Iraqi troops running through empty streets and helicopters flying overhead.
"There are clashes in the streets. Bullets are coming from everywhere and we can hear the sound of rocket explosions. This has been going on since dawn," resident Jamil told Reuters by telephone as he cowered in his home.
Military officials said "many outlaws" had been killed.
Two powerful factions of Iraq's Shi'ite majority, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Mehdi Army militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, are fighting for power in Basra along with a smaller Shi'ite party, Fadhila.
Basra is Iraq's second city and gateway to the Gulf. Its oil fields are the source of most government revenues.
Iraqi oil industry sources said the fields, which exported 1.54 million barrels of oil per day in February, were operating normally on Tuesday.
Officials say criminal gangs are also vying for control of lucrative oil- smuggling routes at a time when Iraq, which has the world's third-largest reserves of oil, is trying to boost exports.
Iraqi security forces took control of Basra from British forces in December, although 4,100 British troops remain at an airbase outside the city to offer assistance if needed. Plans to reduce that force by mid-year appear to have been delayed.
MALIKI IN CITY
Major Tom Holloway, a spokesman for British forces in Basra, said Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was in the city to oversee the operation.
Iraqi army Major-General Ali Zaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground forces in the operation, said the offensive would continue "until we achieve our target. The target is to wipe out all the outlaws. There were clashes and many outlaws have been killed," Zaidan said, adding that he had no death toll.
The operation was launched after Maliki, accompanied by his defense and interior ministers, arrived in the city on Monday vowing to reimpose his government's control over the semi- lawless city.
"It will be very difficult for the central government to regain control," said Joost Hiltermann, an Istanbul-based analyst for the respected International Crisis Group think-tank.
"You have many armed groups that are looking to keep hold of their share of the oil wealth. The central government is clearly upset about this because they want to assert control."
Basra residents said Tuesday's operation was concentrated in six northern districts where Sadr's Mehdi Army militia is known to have a strong presence.
"We are ready to negotiate," said Harith al-Ithari, the head of Sadr's office in Basra, calling for calm and accusing Maliki's government of trying to crush the Sadrist movement.
The British military said no British ground forces were involved in the operation, but warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition were carrying out aerial surveillance.
Holloway said Iraqi troops had been sent from across Iraq to reinforce the 14th Iraqi Army division in Basra.