BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a state of emergency yesterday in the southern oil hub of Basra and said he would deploy an Iraqi army division to quell violence in the nation's second-largest city.
A predominantly Shiite Muslim seaport with a Sunni Arab minority, Basra has for more than a year suffered assassinations, attacks and counterattacks by militia and religious groups vying for power.
Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Hashimi, who accompanied al-Maliki to Basra yesterday, said Shiite militias had begun attacking one another.
"What are these killings, assassinations and kidnappings? What is going on in this city that has sacrificed so much throughout its history, this city that has so many martyrs?" al-Maliki said in a nationally televised speech from Basra.
Even as al-Maliki appealed for calm, U.S. military officials expressed regret that American troops killed two Iraqi women - one of whom was pregnant - whose car entered a restricted area in Samarra.
At least 16 other people were killed yesterday by explosions or shootings after at least 45 deaths Tuesday.
Al-Maliki flew to Basra out of concern that it is becoming another front for violent sectarianism and that local disputes between the leading Shiite parties there - Fadila and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - could deepen fissures in the national Shiite bloc.
"We hear about sectarian conflicts among the Sunni and Shiite. Aren't we all Muslims?" al-Maliki said. "We were all victims of dictatorship."
Violence increased last month after a Sunni tribal leader was assassinated after a meeting with Basra Gov. Mohammed Musabah Waily.
Yesterday, al-Maliki imposed a monthlong curfew in Basra and said Iraqi army units will assume control of security in the city.
"The situation is very poor - worse than you can imagine. Killings are taking place in the streets," said Muhammad Ali, 22, a Shiite oil engineer in Basra. He said killings in Sunni neighborhoods have sparked retaliations against Shiites.
U.S. and Iraqi leaders said the governor and police chief are to blame for failing to rein in militias working alongside - and in some cases, inside - police units. A senior Iraqi official said some of the violence is rooted in disagreements between Fadila and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Fadila boycotted the formation of the central government last month after other parties in Iraq's leading Shiite political bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, rejected Fadila demands to run the powerful Oil Ministry. Basra is home to much of Iraq's oil wealth.
Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.