Clashes erupted between rival Shiite groups across the Shiite-dominated south, threatening Iraq with yet another crisis at a time when politicians are struggling to end a constitutional stalemate with Sunni Arabs.
The confrontation, which began Wednesday in at least five southern cities, involving a radical Shiite leader who led two uprisings against U.S. forces last year, followed the boldest assault by Sunni insurgents in weeks in the capital. Fighting between Shiite factions continued on Thursday morning.
In Baghdad, dozens of insurgents wearing black uniforms and masks attacked Iraqi police with multiple car bombs and small-arms fire that killed at least 13 people and wounded 43, police said.
The new violence came as the U.S. Defense Department announced it was ordering 1,500 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division to Iraq to provide security for the scheduled Oct. 15 referendum on the proposed constitution and the December national elections, according to the AP.
Trouble in the south began when supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr tried to reopen his office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, which was closed after the end of fighting there last year. When Shiites opposed to al-Sadr tried to block the move, fights broke out. Four people were killed, 20 were injured and al-Sadr's office was set on fire, police said.
That enraged al-Sadr's followers, who blamed the country's biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
The party, which controls key posts in the national government, quickly denied responsibility and condemned the attack. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a member of SCIRI, told Iraqiya television he was dispatching a commando brigade to Najaf to restore order. A curfew was imposed from 11 p.m, the AP reports.
Despite the government's move, 21 pro-al-Sadr members of parliament and three senior Cabinet officials announced they would refuse to perform their duties indefinitely to protest the Najaf attack. Municipal officials loyal to al-Sadr in several southern cities issued similar declarations.
As word of the Najaf attack spread, clashes broke out between the two Shiite rival groups across central and southern Iraq. The violence extended to the country's second largest city, Basra, where several hardline Shiite groups are competing for influence.
Al-Sadr's followers attacked SCIRI offices and the headquarters of SCIRI's Badr Brigade militia, setting it ablaze, police said. Al-Sadr's headquarters in Basra was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.
Photo by AP.