Battles across Iraq’s south in crackdown

BASRA, Iraq – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered Shi’ite militiamen to surrender on Wednesday as a crackdown on followers of powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr spread across southern towns leaving a ceasefire in tatters.

Sadr, whose truce last year was praised by U.S. forces for curbing violence, called for talks to end the crackdown on his followers, the biggest military operation that Iraqi forces have undertaken without U.S. or British combat units. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the fighting, which began in the southern oil hub of Basra and spread to Shi’ite parts of Baghdad where Sadr’s followers hold sway and the towns of Hilla, Kut and Diwaniya in the south.

Maliki, in Basra to oversee the campaign there, said fighters would be spared if they surrendered within 72 hours.

The assault is a chance for his government to prove it can impose its will and allow American forces to withdraw. But it also runs a risk of unleashing more violence after a year that saw security in Iraq improve dramatically. “We have been living for the last hours in hell. We have spent most of the time hiding under the staircase,” said Basra resident Faris Hayder, 28. “We haven’t seen anything like this since the foreign troops arrived in 2003.” Battles which began on Tuesday in Basra resumed with heavy gunfire and explosions. A health official said 40 people had been killed and 200 wounded in the city by Wednesday morning.

A Reuters correspondent in Kut, 170 km (105 miles) south of Baghdad, heard gunfire and mortar impacts and saw buildings and cars aflame. Police said at least 18 people died in clashes there, including a baby girl.

In Hilla, several Iraqi security sources spoke of large-scale casualties after a U.S. air strike called to help Iraqi police fighting militiamen. U.S. forces confirmed the helicopter strike but denied there were large numbers killed.

In the capital, a health official said 14 people were killed and more than 140 wounded in clashes in the Sadr City slum.

Mortar bombs in other parts of the city killed nine people and wounded dozens, including three American civilians in the fortified Green Zone diplomatic and government compound. Two American soldiers died of bullet wounds. A roadside bomb struck a U.S. patrol on a main road through Sadr City late on Wednesday and troops were cordoning off the area, a U.S. spokesman said. He had no details of casualties. Iraqi forces also reported clashes in other mainly Shi’ite districts with a strong Sadr presence.

Such a big Iraqi operation would have been impossible a year ago, showing how far Iraqi forces have come, said U.S. military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner: “These are Iraqi decisions, they are Iraqi government forces and these are Iraqi leaders implementing and directing these decisions.”