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IRAQ: Aid agencies unable to gain access to violence-afflicted Karbala

KARBALA, 29 August 2007 (IRIN) - Local aid agencies are finding it difficult to get food and medicines to the southern city of Karbala after Shia-on-Shia violence - in which at least 50 people have been killed - following a religious festival there. One million pilgrims have now been ordered to leave the city.

“We are unable to venture into the streets of Karbala to deliver food to people in need,” said Hassan Yehia, a spokesperson for South Peace Organisation, a locally-based non-governmental organisation. Most shops have been closed for security reasons and pilgrims are finding it difficult to get hold of basic necessities.

“We have been informed that many pilgrim families are camped in the outskirts of the city and in… central areas but police have prevented us from going in as clashes are still continuing in some locations,” Yehia said, adding: “Some new-born babies are without milk and the elderly are having difficulty escaping from the area.”

Pilgrims from Iraq and beyond had gone to Karbala, 110km south of Baghdad, to celebrate the birthday of the 12th and last Shia Imam who passed away in the ninth century.

An eyewitness told IRIN that gunshots could still be heard near Shia shrines, which are the focal point of the celebrations.

Over 250 injured, hospitals under pressure

The fighting appeared to be between gunmen loyal to the fiery Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr - possibly members of his Mahdi Army militia - and police linked to the rival Shia political movement, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and its Badr Organisation.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Maj-Gen Abdul Karim Khalaf said reinforcements were being rushed to Karbala from Baghdad and neighbouring provinces and that they had taken control of the city. It has been reported that at least 50 people were killed and over 250 injured in the clashes.

''We have been informed that many pilgrim families are camped in the outskirts of the city and in… central areas but police have prevented us from going in as clashes are still continuing in some locations.''
The local hospital reported many casualties, mainly among pilgrims rather than police officers.

“We have a serious shortage of doctors and nurses as the number of injured is increasing and many women and children need help as the hot weather has taken its toll,” said Dr Saad Najib of Karbala Main Hospital casualty department.

“The government has said it has taken control of the situation but injured people are still arriving,” Najib added.

A curfew was imposed in the city on 28 August, and the religious festival, which was to have run until the evening of 29 August, has been cancelled.

A broadening of the violence?

Professor Abdel-Karim Abdel-Rahman, a political analyst at Mustansiriyah University, said the fighting between Shia militias is ominous in terms of the country’s security and could broaden sectarian violence in Iraq.

“The disagreements evident over the past three days clearly show security in Iraq is still deteriorating and that the Baghdad government is unable to control the situation without the backing of US-troops,” Abdel-Rahman said.

“The eruption of fighting among Shia militias highlights the kind of violence that is being witnessed in Iraq at the moment. Rather than having Sunnis against Shias, a new extension of disagreements has been born,” he said.

According to Maj-Gen Khalid Hussein, a member of the local security council, returning pilgrims were targeted by militants.

“We have received reports that many buses were stopped and people beaten up, including children and women, their goods stolen and some men led away by gunmen,” Hussein said.

“Two children, four women and many men were killed when they tried to follow a local security order to flee the city: they hadn’t expected insurgents would be waiting for them on their way home.”

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Theme (s): Aid Policy, Conflict, Early Warning, Food Security, Health & Nutrition, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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