Atul Aneja

DUBAI: The Iraqi government’s decision to establish its hold over the oil city of Basra dominated by Shia armed militias has sparked heavy fighting there. Government forces backed by American surveillance aircraft have been targeting the city’s six northern districts where Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army is the dominant force. The fighting follows Sunday’s mortar and rocket attacks on Baghdad’s high security green zone. The Mahdi army’s hand is suspected behind these blasts.

The Mahdi army has been vying for control over Basra with the forces of its rival — the Badr militia loyal to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. A smaller Shia party, Fadhila, is also seeking influence in certain pockets of the city. In recent months, there has been a perceptible drop in violence in Iraq, mainly because of a ceasefire the Sadr movement has maintained.

But after the government offensive began on Tuesday, field commanders of the Mahdi army in Najaf ordered the militia “to strike the occupiers” and their Iraqi allies. Najaf is the headquarters of the al-Sadr movement.

Analysts say the operation in Basra is partly driven by the government’s decision to establish full control over the flow of oil from the city. The surrounding oil fields export around 1.54 million barrels a day.

However, factional forces as well as criminal gangs have been involved in the lucrative oil trade. Besides, Basra’s strategic location might be another factor prompting an all-out offensive. The city is not far from the border with Iran, which has been accused of pumping weapons for militants.

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