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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 May 2006, 20:58 GMT 21:58 UK
New Iraq PM in high-risk strategy
By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Baghdad

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in Basra
Nouri Maliki said security was his first, second and third priority
The state of emergency in Basra is the new Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's attempt to bring some order back to southern Iraq.

For months after the invasion of Iraq, the region was held up as a relatively peaceful part of an otherwise turbulent country.

Relations between the thousands of British forces stationed there and the dominant Shia population were generally deemed to be quite good.

But in the last few months that situation has changed.

Nine British soldiers have been killed in the last month alone. Many Sunni mosques have been closed amid rising sectarian divisions.

There are reports of growing tensions among different Shia groups and militias over political power and a stake in the region's vast oil wealth.

There are also many allegations about Iranian interference.

On Wednesday, Mr Maliki went to Basra to try to heal some of the growing divisions.

In a keynote speech, he said security was his first, second and third priority and he would draw up a plan to deal with the violence.

The prime minister promised to use an iron fist against what he called the gangs of Basra and those responsible for the violence.

'Dramatic gesture'

Later, in a meeting with tribal sheikhs, local politicians and security representatives, he ordered a month-long state of emergency.

British troops in Basra
If extra forces are deployed, it will ease the pressue on UK troops

Extra troops and police will be deployed onto the streets of Basra.

They will support regular police and army operations - setting-up more checkpoints, hunting and disarming armed militia members.

The idea of imposing a curfew is still under discussion.

Significantly, a British military source in Basra told the BBC that UK forces were not consulted about the move, describing it as "an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem".

He also called it a "dramatic gesture". The question is what kind of a gesture it really is.

If it is effectively empty - all rhetoric and little action - then it will make everyone's job much harder.

But if there are a large number of extra forces deployed, who can disarm the militias and establish order, then it will be a boon to the new government and will ease the pressure on the 8,000 British troops serving there.

It may also provide some of the momentum needed to bring stability to other parts of the country.

This is a high-risk strategy with a tight deadline.

There are many factors working in favour of failure rather than success, but at last Mr Maliki has shown what he means when he says he will crack down on violence.

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