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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 May 2006, 19:47 GMT 20:47 UK
'Inflammable' Basra action call
By Andrew North
BBC Baghdad correspondent

Iraqi president Jalal Talabani
Mr Talabani says the situation has now become inflammable
Iraq's president has called on its new government to send a team of high-level officials to Basra to deal with a deteriorating security situation there.

Concern is growing over a continuing power struggle between rival Shia factions in the southern region - where thousands of UK troops are based.

There are also concerns over rising sectarian violence.

In a statement President Jalal Talabani said the team should have the power to appoint new local officials.

'Concern growing'

Basra is Iraq's second-largest city and the focus of the British military operation in southern Iraq, which has about 7,000 troops in the region.

Concern about security in Basra has been growing for months. It used to be one of the calmer parts of the country.

In his statement, President Talabani said the situation now had become inflammable and needed immediate treatment.

British forces there have faced an increasing number of attacks and growing numbers of casualties.

A roadside bomb was set off on Sunday near a British patrol, although there were no injuries.

The small Sunni minority in this overwhelmingly-Shia region has come under increasing pressure too.

In the past few weeks two Sunni clerics have been shot dead.

To some extent this is a power struggle between the capital and the regions

The most recent incident was on Friday, prompting Sunni religious leaders to order the closure of all Sunni mosques in the city.

Much of the instability in Basra has been blamed on Shia militia groups and on rivalry between different Shia factions.

One of these factions, the Fadhila Party, controls the governor's office.

There are fears its leaders could order their supporters in the oil industry to stop working normally so as to hold up exports - exports that provide most of Iraq's current revenues.

That is why President Talabani has called for Iraq's new prime minister, Nuri al-Malaki, to send a delegation to Basra with powers to dismiss and appoint new officials.

To some extent this is a power struggle between the capital and the regions - a healthy sign of political development you could argue - but this is a region that the new government in Baghdad cannot afford to lose control of because of its crucial role in Iraq's economy.

The British military in Basra had no immediate response to the Iraqi leader's statement but they too have had many problems dealing with local officials in the city.

And only when the Iraqi government, together with the new Iraqi security forces, are able to get control of the situation in the city can British troops have any hope of withdrawing.


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