Clashes between a Shiite group and security forces in two Iraq cities marred annual Ashura rituals on Friday as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a sharp warning to the government. Shiite fighters launched simultaneous attacks on police and troops with machine guns and light arms in the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah at around noon (0900 GMT), police said.
The fighting, in which at least eight people died, was still continuing in the late afternoon but only sporadically, AFP reported. The clashes, involving members of a Shiite sect led by Ahmed al-Hassani Al-Yamani, came as hundreds of thousands of Shiites descended on the holy city of Karbala in central Iraq for the Ashura ceremonies.
The rituals, which reach their peak on Saturday, commemorate the killing of Imam Hussein by armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680.
Around two million people are expected in Karbala, 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of Baghdad, by Saturday, guarded by a 20,000-strong security force.
Police said those involved in the clashes in Basra and Nasiriyah were members of a sect who believe Imam Mahdi will reappear on Friday and that they had to take up arms against "infidels." Last year's fighting left 263 sect followers dead.
Police said six people -- five policemen and a civilian woman -- were killed in Nasiriyah, 350 kilometres south of Baghdad, and some 25 were wounded. AFP reported from Basra about at least two dead.
Meanwhile, Iraq's prominent Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr warned on Friday that he may end a freeze on his militia's activities, eliminating a key reason for improved security in the country recently. Sadr ordered a six-month halt of the Mahdi Army's activities late last August after allegations that his fighters were involved in bloody clashes in Karbala.
The suspension was scheduled to last until the end of February, but the statement from Sadr's office warned that the freeze may not be extended because, it said, the security services remain infiltrated by criminals. "The decision to suspend the Mahdi Army's activities has not been rewarded with good results because the government is still counting on criminal gangs inside their security system," said Sadr's spokesman Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi.
He said security forces outside Baghdad were worst affected, and that the government had failed to take any action against them.