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Basra militias given ultimatum

Times Staff Writers

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki gave Shiite Muslim militiamen in Basra three days to surrender as fighting raged Wednesday in the southern Shiite heartland and parts of Baghdad, leaving more than 80 people dead in two days.

Basra residents trapped in their homes by raging gun battles worried that food was running out with no end in sight to the clashes between Iraqi security forces and followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and other armed factions.

In Baghdad, volleys of rocket and mortar fire shook areas Wednesday, including the fortified Green Zone, site of the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices. One U.S. soldier, two American civilians and an Iraqi soldier were wounded in the attacks, the military said.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed in separate attacks Wednesday in Baghdad, the military said. The deaths brought to at least 4,002 the number of American military personnel who have died since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, according to the website icasulties.org.

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Fighting erupted in Basra on Tuesday when Iraqi government security forces announced the launch of a crackdown against armed factions and criminal gangs that have been vying for control of the city, Iraq’s second-largest, and its lucrative oil industry. More than 30 people were killed and 100 injured there, health officials said.

The level of resistance to the crackdown represented a major challenge to Maliki’s authority and deepened fears that a cease-fire declared last year by Sadr may be in danger of collapse. The truce by his Mahdi Army militia has played a key part in the significant decline in violence since a U.S. troop buildup reached its peak in June.

Sadr’s followers have complained for months that American and Iraqi security forces, many of them with ties to rival Shiite factions in the government, are taking advantage of the truce to arrest Mahdi Army fighters and weaken his movement before the provincial elections scheduled for Oct. 1. Sadr’s representatives called Tuesday for nationwide protests in response to the latest crackdown.

The unrest quickly spread to Kut, Hillah and several neighborhoods of Baghdad, where small groups of demonstrators took to the streets and Mahdi Army fighters traded gunfire with U.S. and Iraqi security forces and rival militias.

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Late Wednesday, explosions could also be heard in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Maliki, who is overseeing the campaign from Basra, issued a statement giving gunmen 72 hours to surrender, turn in their weapons and sign a pledge renouncing violence or face what he said would be serious penalties.

Sadr issued no comment. Officials at his Najaf headquarters said the cleric was urging his followers to respect the truce and would send representatives to Basra to negotiate with local leaders.

Liwa Sumaysim, who heads Sadr’s political operations nationwide, said Maliki’s presence and the deployment to Basra of 3,500 extra police officers and soldiers were a provocation and they should leave.

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Members of Maliki’s coalition government insisted Wednesday that the crackdown was not aimed at Sadr but at “outlaws” and “criminals” who they alleged have infiltrated Basra’s government, security forces and oil industry through violence and intimidation.

“This campaign isn’t against any particular group, but rather against organized criminal groups . . . responsible for killing numerous professors, doctors and religious clerics in Basra,” said Haider Abadi, a lawmaker with Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party.

U.S. officials in Washington expressed approval Wednesday for the offensive, which comes two weeks before Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is due to present a report on Iraq strategy to Congress.

Yet the rise in violence, particularly in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, could contradict administration claims that the troop buildup has led to greater stability and safety across Iraq.

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U.S. officials have credited Sadr’s cease-fire, declared in late August, for helping lower the level of violence. But some American officials voiced concern Wednesday that the truce would be jeopardized by the aggressive measures in Basra.

Steven Hadley, President Bush’s national security advisor, said the offensive was aimed at militiamen who have defied Sadr’s order to lay down arms.

“It’s not a move, as we read it, by the central government to repudiate the cease-fire in any way,” Hadley said.

Administration officials said the operation was an important sign that the Shiite-dominated Maliki government was finally willing to take the initiative against extremist elements within its own religious sect.

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U.S. officials underscored that the operation was ordered by Maliki on his own, though in close coordination with U.S. and British forces.

“A lot of critics have said what’s lacking is the Iraqi government stepping up, taking responsibility for security,” Hadley said. “What [Maliki has] really done is take that matter into his hands, go down to Basra and to assert the authority of the central government, but more to the point, the authority for the rule of law.”

But some analysts warned against oversimplifying the rivalries within Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslim community.

“The current fighting is as much a power struggle for control of the south, and the Shiite parts of Baghdad and the rest of the country, as an effort to establish central government authority and legitimate rule,” military expert Anthony Cordesman said in an analysis for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Sadr’s movement mostly boycotted the provincial elections in 2005, handing control of most of the Shiite south to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Iraq’s dominant political party, and its Dawa allies. But the two parties have provided few services or other improvements and could lose ground to Sadr’s followers in the next elections.

More than 28,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers are participating in the Basra offensive, the largest and most complicated operation undertaken by the new Iraqi military.

British forces handed over responsibility for security in Basra to the provincial government in December. The U.S. and British militaries have advisors posted with some of the Iraqi units and are providing air support, but they have not been asked to play a direct role in Basra, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said at a news briefing.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, spokesman for Iraq’s Interior Ministry, said many gunmen in Basra had been killed, injured or detained. But Muhannad Hashimi, a spokesman for Sadr’s office in the city, said Mahdi militiamen still controlled parts of the city and had captured a number of Iraqi soldiers and seized their vehicles.

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Residents reported seeing militiamen cruising the streets in army vehicles as warplanes roared overhead and explosions reverberated in the distance.

“The problem is that we didn’t expect such confrontations to happen. Otherwise we would prepare ourselves and buy some additional food, bread, water,” said a university professor and mother of three who had moved to Basra to escape the sectarian killing in Baghdad.

The professor, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said she was already running out of food and prescription medicines.

“There is a car outside, tens of bullets hit it,” she said. “How can we go out?”

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Another resident, Mahdi Obeidi, said he did not understand what the government hoped to gain by going after the militias.

“These elements are intricately interwoven within society,” he said. “It’s not like they have camps or anything.”

Police said at least seven Iraqis were killed and dozens injured in the Baghdad rocket and mortar fire.

U.S. military spokesman Bergner blamed the Green Zone attacks on rogue elements of the Mahdi Army, which he said were disregarding Sadr’s cease-fire. Bergner acknowledged that it had been a “difficult and challenging” few days, but said that the Iraqi security forces were maintaining control in Baghdad with U.S. backing.

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The fighting was heaviest in Sadr City, a vast Shiite district that is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army. At least 20 people were killed and 115 injured there in the last two days, Iraqi security officials said Wednesday.

Sporadic clashes broke out in other mostly Shiite parts of the city, and gunmen in speeding cars sprayed bullets at storefronts to force them to close.

South of the capital, Iraqi security officials said 25 to 35 people, most of them gunmen, were killed when police requested a U.S. airstrike against Mahdi militiamen battling their forces in Hillah. The U.S. military said an attack helicopter fired a single missile and initial reports indicated that four “criminals” were killed.

The conflicting accounts could not immediately be reconciled.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Zavis reported from Baghdad and Spiegel from Washington. Staff writers Ned Parker and Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf, and special correspondents in Baghdad and Basra contributed to this report.


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