Amnesty offer to Shia tribes as 14 die in new Iraqi clash
Forces loyal to Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki fought militiamen in the holy city of Karbala yesterday in the first factional clashes within the Shia community since Sunni jihadists seized control of swathes of northern Iraq.
Local media reported that at least 14 people were killed when government forces staged a raid on the headquarters of Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, a Shia cleric who cast doubts on calls for all Shia Muslims to take up arms in the battle against Isis, now known as Islamic State.
The attack appeared to be part of a move by Mr Maliki and his Shia-led government to consolidate his grip in central and southern Iraq, as he grapples against the Sunni insurgency that has swept across the north of the country.
The prime minister declared an amnesty yesterday for "all tribes and all people who were involved in actions against the state" in an attempt to draw moderate Sunni tribal support away from the jihadist groups that have led the military advance against Baghdad.
The fighting in Karbala was the first indication of a split within Shia ranks since the onslaught in the north, in response to which the government and religious leaders called for Shia to take up arms against the Sunni attackers.
Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, pronounced a fatwa calling to "protect" the country, leading thousands of Shia men to take up arms, but Mr Sarkhi infuriated Baghdad by speaking out against it.
Yesterday, Ali Najafi, the son of a prominent pro-Sistani cleric in the nearby city of Najaf, accused Mr Sarkhi of seeking to seize control of the Imam Abbas shrine in Karbala.
Sources said security forces stormed Mr Sarkhi's office on Tuesday night, as snipers were positioned on rooftops and helicopter gunships flew overhead.
Earlier, Mr al-Malik said that the declaration of an Islamic state by Isis in territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria poses a threat to the entire region. "No one in Iraq or any neighbouring country will be safe from these plans," he insisted.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant announced that it has unilaterally established a caliphate in the areas under its control. It declared the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of its new self-styled state governed by Shariah law and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.
In his weekly address, Mr al-Maliki said the militant group's announcement "is a message to all the states in the region that you are inside the red circle now.
"They should return to their senses. We are not excluding anybody, even those who committed misdeeds, apart from those who killed or shed blood," he said. "I welcome them to return and stand with the other tribes that have taken up arms."
Al-Maliki offered a similar amnesty after militants seized two cities in central Iraq early this year, but few if any Sunnis took up his offer.
With its recent gains, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant now controls a swathe of land that stretches from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad. That has sent tremors across the region, particularly in the capitals of Iraq's neighbours – Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran.
The US, which withdrew the last of its troops from Iraq in 2011, is also keeping close tabs on events. (© Daily Telegraph, London)