Clashes in Iraqi city of Basra leave four dead and crisis in the oil-rich south

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Clashes between rival Shi’ite Muslim militants in the Iraqi city of Basra have killed at least four people, security officials said on Thursday, at a time when violence stemming from escalating the political crisis affects the south of the country.

The unrest began with two days of intense street clashes in Baghdad earlier in the week, the worst the Iraqi capital has seen in years.

The crisis amounts to a power struggle between the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Shiite parties and paramilitary groups, mostly aligned with Iran.

Both sides have tried to exert their control over the formation of a new government since the October elections. The battle began with political movements in parliament and the judiciary, moved to the streets when Sadr withdrew from the political process and staged protests over the summer, and then degenerated into violence in late August.

This has left Iraq, still reeling from years of war, sanctions, civil strife and corruption, without a government for the longest period since the 2003 US invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

The violence has focused on Baghdad and the south, areas dominated by Iraq’s Shiite majority, which has ruled the country since Saddam’s regime was swept away.

“The security situation in Basra is really bad, and it could escalate,” said one of the security officials, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Both security officials in Basra, Iraq’s main oil production hub , said the deadliest clashes took place overnight in the city center. Two of the dead were members of Sadr’s Peace Brigades militia, they said.

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On Thursday morning, gunmen attacked government buildings in Basra, where Iranian-linked security forces and paramilitary groups are based. Officials could not immediately identify the men who fired on the government buildings, but said they believed they were Sadr supporters.

On Tuesday, Sadr called for calm in Baghdad and the violence quickly subsided. However, obstacles to peace remain. Sadr calls for the dissolution of parliament and new elections, and some of his rivals insist on the formation of a government.

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