BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's new prime minister declared a state of emergency Wednesday in the southern city of Basra, vowing to crack down with an "iron fist" on rival gangs battling each other for power.
A car bomb in the northern city of Mosul, meanwhile, killed five policemen, the latest insurgent attack during an especially bloody week.
Violence has been escalating in Shiite-dominated Basra, with a wave of kidnappings and the slayings of nearly 140 people — mostly Sunnis but also Shiites and police — in May alone, police said. The tension has been brewing largely due to the growing influence of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, and the armed Badr organization, both Shiite groups.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, declared the monthlong state of emergency during a visit to the oil-rich region, said Syed Muhammad al-Haidari, a top Shiite official traveling with him. Al-Maliki gave a strong denunciation of the violence that Sunni religious leaders have blamed on Shiite death squads.
"We shall use an iron fist against the leaders of the gangs or those who threaten security," he said earlier in a speech, 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.
"The size of the security power in this province as far as I know should be sufficient to maintain full control of the security situation, but it seems that these forces are useless with the deteriorating of the security situation in this town," he told about 700 tribal sheiks, religious leaders, officials, army officers and other residents.
It is the only state of emergency in effect, Interior Ministry Undersecretary Major-General Ahmed Al-Khafaji said from Basra. Other cities, including Baghdad and Ramadi, have curfews.
Shouting broke out in the auditorium before al-Maliki delivered his speech, with several tribal leaders accusing local officials and security forces of being behind the mounting violence. But al-Maliki calmed them, saying: "We cannot negotiate with everybody shouting."
The car bomb in Mosul struck a police patrol, killing at least five policemen and wounding 14. The blast 225 miles northwest of Baghdad heavily damaged nearby stores.
Gunmen ambushed a minibus northeast of Baghdad, killing at least five people and wounding three, police said. The attack occurred in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
In Baghdad, gunmen killed a Shiite muazzin, the man who calls for the five daily prayers, as he headed to the Imam Ali Mosque, police Capt. Ali Hussein said.
He also said former Diwaniyah Gov. Jamal Kadhim Hassoun al-Zamili was killed in a drive-by shooting late Tuesday that also wounded two bodyguards.
A bomb hidden in an air conditioner exploded in the mayor's office in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, killing the mayor, Sheik Allaywi Farhan al-Dulaimi, a member of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, and wounding three guards, police said. Provincial Gov. Raad Rashid al-Mula Jawad imposed a curfew and deployed army forces.
A 25-year-old sportscaster for al-Iraqiya TV, Ali Jaafar, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting near his southwest Baghdad house, police Lt. Col. Falah al-Mohammedawi said.
At least 19 bodies were found in separate locations in Baghdad, many blindfolded and handcuffed, apparent victims of sectarian killings often blamed on militias.
The new violence came a day after car bombs targeting Shiite areas tore through an auto dealership in southern Iraq and a bustling outdoor market north of Baghdad as attacks nationwide killed 54 people and wounded 120.
U.S. forces killed two Iraqi women — including one about to give birth — when they shot at a car that did not stop at an observation post north of Baghdad, Iraqi officials and relatives said Wednesday.
Nabiha Nisaif Jassim, a 35-year-old mother of two, was being raced to the maternity hospital in Samarra by her brother when the shooting occurred Tuesday. Her 57-year-old cousin, Saliha Mohammed Hassan, also was killed by U.S. forces, police Capt. Laith Mohammed and witnesses said.
A car entered a clearly marked prohibited area near coalition troops at an observation post, and "shots were fired to disable the vehicle" after repeated warnings, the military said, adding that it later learned that the women had been shot. Iraqi relatives and witnesses said the women were killed in the U.S. shooting and there was no warning.
"I was with the victims, one of them was pregnant and about to give birth," said a woman who did not give her name but said she was a relative.
The shooting deaths occurred in the wake of an investigation into allegations that U.S. Marines killed about 24 unarmed civilians in the western city of Haditha.
Former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi told the British Broadcasting Corp. the allegations have "created a feeling of great shock and sadness and I believe that if what is alleged is true — and I have no reason to believe it's not — then I think something very drastic has to be done."
"There must be a level of discipline imposed on the American troops and change of mentality which seems to think that Iraqi lives are expendable," said Pachachi, now a member of parliament.
Al-Maliki said his trip to Basra was an effort to "heal the rift and find a solution for what caused the latest events."
Britain has about 8,000 troops in the area, along with those of other countries. In the months after the 2003 invasion, British troops enjoyed relative peace in the south, compared with the restive Sunni regions farther north.
But now violence has escalated. Two British soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing Sunday in Basra, bringing to nine the number of British personnel who have died in the city this month and pushing total British deaths since 2003 to 113. American deaths, meanwhile, are approaching 2,500.
Shiite anger also has been stoked by a perceived shift in U.S. policy since the arrival of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim who has criticized the Shiite-led Interior Ministry for human rights abuses and made overtures to Sunni insurgents in hopes of getting them to disarm.
Sunni leaders also ordered the closure of all Sunni mosques in the city and urged preachers not to hold Friday prayers last week to protest the killing of a cleric.
Al-Sadr led two armed uprisings against U.S.-led forces in 2004 and has criticized the foreign military mission. His militia, the Mahdi Army, still operates in Basra.
The Badr Organization for Reconstruction and Development maintains it no longer is a militia but is still armed. The group is linked to Iraq's biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — senior partner in the Shiite coalition that won the biggest number of parliament seats.
Badr is also widely believed to have links to Iranian intelligence. Badr veterans are believed represented in ranks of the Interior Ministry special commando forces that have been alleged to take part in the abuse of Sunni prisoners.
Al-Maliki, meanwhile, still has not persuaded Iraq's ethnic, sectarian and secular factions to agree on new defense and interior ministers, leaving the key security posts vacant more than a week after his national unity government took office.