Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Iraq War Bulletin: Fighting Continues in Basra and Baghdad

Iraqi PM Gives Basra Gunmen 3-Day Ultimatum to Surrender Weapons

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press

Iraq's prime minister on Wednesday gave gunmen in the southern oil port of Basra three days to surrender their weapons and renounce violence as clashes between security forces and Shiite militia fighters erupted for a second day.

Suspected Shiite extremists also unleashed rockets or mortars against the U.S.-protected Green Zone in central Baghdad for the third day this week.

Three Americans were seriously injured in the attacks, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said. At least eight Iraqis also were killed after rounds fell short in several areas of Baghdad.

At least 55 people have been killed and 300 wounded in Basra and Baghdad after the fighting spread to the capital's main Shiite district of Sadr City, police and hospital officials said.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Basra to supervise a crackdown against the spiraling violence between militia factions vying for control of the center of the country's vast oil industry located near the Iranian border.

The violence has raised fears that the cease-fire declared in August by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could unravel, presenting the gravest challenge to the Iraqi government in months.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, a chief adviser to al-Maliki, said gunmen in Basra who turn over their weapons to police stations and sign a pledge renouncing violence will not face prosecution.

"Any gunman who does not do that within these three days will be an outlaw," he said.

A resumption of intense fighting by al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia could kill more U.S. soldiers and threaten — at least in the short run — the security gains Washington has hailed as a sign that Iraq is on the road to recovery.

Officials in al-Sadr's headquarters in Najaf, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the anti-U.S. cleric had sent local representatives to ask al-Maliki to leave Basra and resolve the problems peacefully. The aides also told the government no negotiations could be held until Iraqi reinforcements withdrew from the city.

The burgeoning crisis — part of an intense power struggle among Shiite political factions — will test the skill and resolve of Iraq's Shiite-led government in dealing with Shiite militias, which have close ties with the national leadership.

The Sadrists are angry over recent raids and detentions, saying U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken advantage of the cease-fire to crack down on the movement.

They have accused rival Shiite parties, which control Iraqi security forces, of engineering the arrests to prevent them from mounting an effective election campaign. The showdown with al-Sadr has been brewing for months but has accelerated since parliament agreed in February to hold provincial elections by the fall.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner insisted the Sadrists were not being singled out and blamed Iranian-backed rogue militia factions for the recent violence, although he declined to link Iran directly to the fighting.

Bergner also noted the Iraqi government was taking the lead in the Basra operation, although U.S. troops were involved as members of transition teams helping train the Iraqis.

He said the Iraqi government had appealed to Iran to help restore calm in Basra.

"This is not a battle against the (Mahdi Army) nor is it a proxy war between the United States and Iran," he said. "It is the government of Iraq taking the necessary action to deal with criminals on the streets."

The White House welcomed al-Maliki's actions in Basra.

"This is exactly what we all want to see, which is the government of Iraq taking the initiative that was afforded to it by the surge and going aggressively after illegal criminal gangs and illegal militias in the Basra region," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.

Gunfire echoed through the streets of Basra as Iraqi soldiers and police fought the Mahdi Army, police said.

AP Television News video showed militia members in fierce street battles with security forces. Tanks rumbled in the background as gunmen exchanged rocket-propelled grenade and machine gun fire. They also danced in the streets and around burned out Iraqi military vehicles.

Reinforcements were sent to Basra from the Shiite holy city of Karbala, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said, adding a large number of gunmen have been detained.

Mortar rounds hit a detention center in central Basra and wounded 10, police said.

Iraqi officials say at least 40 people were killed and 200 wounded in the fighting in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

British troops have remained at their base at the airport outside Basra and were not involved in the ground fighting, although British planes were providing air surveillance, according to the British Ministry of Defense. It said the Iraqis had not asked the British to intervene.

British forces turned over responsibility for Basra to the Iraqis in late December but say they will assist the Iraqis upon request.

Hundreds of Sadr City residents took to the streets on Wednesday, demanding the government stop military operations in Basra and other cities and withdraw all security forces.

Sheik Salman al-Feraiji, al-Sadr's chief representative in Sadr City, said the cleric had asked his offices in Baghdad and the southern city of Amarah to organize demonstrations demanding al-Maliki's resignation.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks against the Green Zone, which houses the American and British embassies as well as the Iraqi government headquarters.

Bergner blamed Iranian-backed Shiite militia factions, saying most of the rockets had been fired from predominantly Shiite areas in eastern Baghdad, particularly Sadr City.

Several Iraqi civilians were killed or injured in separate fighting between U.S. troops and suspected al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents in the northern town of Tikrit, the U.S. military said.

The U.S. troops, who were targeting a militant suspected of organizing car bombs, called in an airstrike after coming under heavy fire from insurgents using civilians as shields when they approached a house, the military said.

At least seven bodies were found in the rubble of houses destroyed in the airstrike, an Iraqi police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. He said a local judge who owned one of the houses was among the dead.

Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

Many killed in fresh Iraq fighting

Many towns and cities across southern Iraq were under curfew by nightfall

Fighters loyal to Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have clashed for a second day with Iraqi and US forces in their Baghdad bastion of Sadr City and in the southern city of Basra.

Iraqi security officials said at least 20 people were killed and 100 others wounded on Wednesday in Sadr City and confirmed that seven people had been killed in Basra.

Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, has imposed a deadline for those fighting security forces in Basra to surrender.

"Those who were deceived into carry weapons must deliver themselves and make a written pledge to promise they will not repeat such action within 72 hours," he said on Wednesday.

"Otherwise, they will face the most severe penalties."

'Disobedience' appeal

Officials said the latest fighting broke out in Sadr City early on Wednesday.

Clashes were also reported in the Mahdi Army's southern strongholds of Al-Gaazaiza, Al-Garma, Khmasamene, Al-Hayania and Al-Maqal.

Three US government officials were injured after rockets and mortars were fired into the capital's fortified Green Zone.

The violence comes after Iraq's security forces launched raids on strongholds of Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters on Tuesday.

As the fighting broke out, al-Sadr issued a statement calling for demonstrations across the country and threatened "civil disobedience" if attacks by US and Iraqi forces on members of his movement continued.

"We demand that religious and political leaders intervene to stop the attacks on poor people," a statement read by Hazam al-Aaraji, an al-Sadr representative, said.

"We call on all Iraqis to launch protests across all the provinces. If the government does not respect these demands, the second step will be general civil disobedience in Baghdad and the Iraqi provinces."

Falah Shenshal, an MP allied to al-Sadr, told Al Jazeera that al-Maliki was targeting political opponents.

"They say they target outlaw gangs but why do they start with the areas where the sons of the Sadr movement are located?"

"This is a political battle ... for the political interests of one party [al-Maliki's Dawa party] because the local elections are coming soon.

"They are using the law for their political interests. We will ask the parliament to drop confidence from the Maliki government."

Basra operation

The fighting in Basra, where al-Sadr's followers maintain a strong presence, began before dawn on Tuesday in what the Iraqi government called an operation to win control of the city from militias and criminal gangs.

Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, was in the oil hub city to personally oversee the operation involving thousands of Iraqi troops.

Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the security forces were fighting against "those that are exploiting the name of the Mahdi, those that are exploiting the name of Muqtada al-Sadr".

"There will be no dialogue with them [the fighters] but there definitely will be dialogue with Muqtada al-Sadr himself," he said.

By nightfall, many towns and cities across southern Iraq were under curfew to try to stem spreading violence.

Police sources said supporters of al-Sadr seized control of five neighbourhoods in the southern town of Kut after clashing with police.

In Hilla, police battled Mahdi Army fighters in two districts in the centre of the southern town.


The Mahdi Army has grown frustrated with a ceasefire imposed by al-Sadr last year.

Its fighters say the ceasefire has been abused by US and Iraqi forces to make indiscriminate arrests ahead of provincial elections.

The US military says it is targeting only "rogue" members who have broken the ceasefire, and has cited the truce as a main factor in a significant drop in violence across the country.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Ali, a member of al-Sadr's office in Basra, said the group could not understand why Iraqi security forces had launched an operation against it.

"This ongoing operation in Basra appears to be security-related, while, in fact, it is a political one," he told Al Jazeera.

"The al-Sadr trend in Basra has frequently said that it supports the Iraqi government and the Iraqi forces in Basra.

"Al-Mahdi Army is not a military army, as some believe. It is a doctrinal army that serves the society. And that is why al-Mahdi Army has had a great role in supporting the Iraqi security forces in Basra."

Basra province was handed over to Iraqi control by British forces in mid-December and Tuesday's operation was seen as a test for the security forces.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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