- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

BASRA, Iraq — Iraq’s prime minister declared a state of emergency yesterday in once peaceful and oil-rich Basra, as the sectarian and militia violence engulfing the country’s capital spread to its southern economic heartland.

In his first major policy speech since his government was sworn in May 20, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to restore security in Iraq as attacks across the country took more than 20 lives and wounded dozens.

“We shall use an iron fist against the leaders of the gangs or those who threaten security,” he said, apparently referring to the militias as well as rival tribal groups. “And we shall ask all security departments to draw up an effective and quick plan to achieve security.”

Meanwhile, with investigations pending into charges that U.S. Marines killed unarmed civilians, then covered up the incident, President Bush yesterday said that if the probe turns up evidence of wrongdoing, those involved will be punished.

“I am troubled by the initial news stories. I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the laws were broken, there will be punishment,” the president said in his first public comments about the accusations.

In an unrelated incident the fatal shooting Tuesday of a pregnant Iraqi, apparently by U.S. troops, as she was rushing to a hospital, threw an additional spotlight on the issue of Iraqi civilian deaths.

Iraqi police and witnesses said the troops gunned down the woman and her cousin in their car. The U.S. military said the car entered a clearly marked prohibited area but failed to stop despite repeated signals; shots were fired to disable the vehicle, the military said.

Nabiha Nisaif Jassim, a 35-year-old who was pregnant, and her cousin Saliha Mohammed Hassan, 57, became the latest victims of what many Iraqis think is the American troops’ disregard for life.

Mr. Al-Maliki promised to crack down on sectarian gangs in Basra and declared a monthlong state of emergency, which broadens arrest powers for Iraqi security services and establishes an evening curfew.

It was the only state of emergency in effect across Iraq, officials said. Other cities where violence is rampant, such as Baghdad and Ramadi, only have curfews.

“The state of emergency imposed in Basra for one month is made up of a group of exceptional measures imposed for a specific time by the prime minister for dealing with some events,” Interior Ministry Undersecretary Maj. Gen. Ahmed Al-Khafaji said from Basra.

Mr. Al-Maliki, who traveled with his Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, addressed about 700 tribal sheiks, religious leaders, officials, army officers and other residents in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Tensions have been worsening in the Shi’ite-dominated area, where Britain has about 8,000 soldiers, and mostly Shi’ite militias have been attacking Sunni Arabs and battling each other.

Iran’s hand also is rumored to be behind Shi’ite militias in Basra, although little evidence of a direct link has been made public.

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