Al-Sadr tells militia to keep guns


The battle in Basra is crucial for the Iraqi prime minister and his government.

BAGHDAD (AP) — Anti-American Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers Saturday to defy government orders to surrender their weapons, as U.S. jets struck Shiite extremists near Basra to bolster a faltering Iraqi offensive against gunmen in the city.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged he may have miscalculated by failing to foresee the strong backlash that his offensive, which began Tuesday, provoked in areas of Baghdad and other cities where Shiite militias wield power.

Government television said the round-the-clock curfew imposed two days ago on the capital and due to expire today would be extended indefinitely.

Despite the mounting crisis, al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, vowed to remain in Basra until government forces wrest control from militias, including al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. He called the fight for control of Basra “a decisive and final battle.”

British ground troops, who controlled the city until handing it over to the Iraqis last December, also joined the battle for Basra, firing artillery Saturday for the first time in support of Iraqi forces.

Iraqi authorities have given Basra extremists until April 8 to surrender heavy and medium weapons after an initial 72-hour ultimatum to hand them over was widely ignored.

Residents of Basra contacted by telephone said Mahdi militiamen were manning checkpoints Saturday in their neighborhood strongholds. The sound of intermittent mortar and machine gun fire rang out across the city, as the military headquarters at a downtown hotel came under repeated fire.

An Iraqi army battalion commander and two of his bodyguards were killed Saturday night by a roadside bomb in central Basra, military spokesman Col. Karim al-Zaidi said.

The fight for Basra is crucial for al-Maliki, who flew to Basra earlier this week and is staking his credibility on gaining control of Iraq’s second-largest city, which has essentially been held by armed groups for nearly three years.

In a speech Saturday to tribal leaders in Basra, al-Maliki promised to “stand up to these gangs” not only in the south but throughout Iraq.

Two American soldiers were killed Saturday when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in mostly Shiite east Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

The growing turmoil threatens to undermine White House efforts to convince a skeptical Congress and the American public that the Iraqis are making progress toward managing their own security without the presence of U.S. troops.

With the Shiite militiamen defiant, a group of police in the Mahdi Army’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City abandoned their posts and handed over their weapons to al-Sadr’s local office. Police forces in Baghdad are believed to be heavily influenced or infiltrated by Mahdi militiamen.

On Saturday, Iraqi officials said they had received a phone call from Tahseen Sheikhly, the high-profile civilian spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, who was seized by gunmen two days earlier from at his home in a Shiite area of the capital.

“Our release depends on the withdrawal of al-Maliki from Basra and the easing of the military operations against the Sadrists in all provinces,” he said. “We appeal to the prime minister and the Iraqi government to work with the Sadrist movement, which represents the popular base of society.”

In Basra, U.S. jets dropped two precision-guided bombs at midday Saturday on a suspected militia stronghold at Qarmat Ali north of the city, British military spokesman Maj. Tom Holloway said.

“My understanding was that this was a building that had people who were shooting back at Iraqi ground forces,” Holloway said.

Iraqi police said that earlier in the day a U.S. warplane strafed a house and killed eight civilians, including two women and one child.

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