March 30, 2008

Meanwhile, in Irak ..

Boy in house damaged in clashes, Sadr City, Baghdad, 29.03.08
Baghdad's Shia Sadr City area has seen heavy clashes

Baghdad's military command has extended a round-the clock curfew in the city for an indefinite period.

It was imposed on Thursday amid clashes between troops and Shia militias in Baghdad and elsewhere, and had been due to expire early on Sunday morning.

The extension came hours after radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr said his Mehdi Army militia would defy a government call to lay down its weapons.

Across Iraq, fighting has claimed more than 200 lives since Tuesday.

The BBC's Crispin Thorold in Baghdad says the curfew extension will damage the capital economically, as well as inconveniencing residents.

The initial imposition of the curfew was a sign of how badly security in Baghdad had deteriorated, he says.

Baghdad, particularly the Shia-dominated Sadr City area in the east of the city, has seen some of the worst violence in recent days, including a series of US air strikes on Friday.

Air strikes

The curfew extension came after a day of skirmishes between security forces and Shia militiamen in the southern city of Basra, where the current wave of unrest began.

Fierce gun battles were reported, while the UK military said US warplanes carried out two air strikes.

Iraqi police said an earlier US air strike killed eight people, although no independent confirmation was available.

Iraq map

British forces in the city fired artillery rounds on what they said were militia mortar positions - the first time they had directly joined the fighting since government forces launched the operation in Basra.

Iraqi forces have been trying to wrest control of the city and other Shia areas from the Mehdi Army.

In an interview, Moqtada Sadr said he would ignore the call by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, for his forces to surrender their weapons.

He said they would only be handed over to a government which could get the occupying forces out of Iraq.

Mr Maliki has extended an original three-day deadline, telling the fighters they had until 8 April to hand in their weapons in return for cash.

On Saturday the prime minister vowed that government troops will not leave Basra until "security is restored", describing the gunmen as "worse than al-Qaeda".

A man inspects a charred Iraqi army vehicle in Basra on 29 March
Iraqi soldiers have met fierce resistance in Basra
"We will continue to stand up to these gangs in every inch of Iraq," he said.

Meanwhile Al-Jazeera TV broadcast excerpts from an exclusive interview with Moqtada Sadr that it conducted hours before the beginning of the clashes on Tuesday.

Mr Sadr called on Arab and Muslims states and the UN to

"recognise the legitimacy of resistance"
and offer support to Iraqi to
"drive the occupation forces out of its land".

Power struggle

Estimates vary of the number of deaths since the fighting broke out.

Health officials in Baghdad say at least 75 people have been killed while in Basra, the British military give a death toll of 50.

However, Basra medical sources report as many as 290 dead and an Iraqi army commander, Maj-Gen Ali Zaidan, said on Friday his forces had killed 120 "enemy" fighters there. He did not give casualty figures for his own soldiers.

Scores of people are believed to have been killed in other southern cities, according to Iraqi police or medical reports.

At least 44 people were killed in and around Kut, 15 in Nasiriya, 12 in Karbala and six in Hilla.

The fighting is blamed on a power struggle between rival Shia factions.

Moqtada Sadr's followers have in the past rebelled against the US-backed government, although the cleric's political bloc has backed Mr Maliki's ruling coalition.

A ceasefire by the Mehdi Army, in place since August 2007 and renewed in February, has been widely credited with reducing sectarian tensions and contributing to the recent overall drop in violence.

Correspondents say Moqtada Sadr's supporters fear the prime minister - also a Shia - wishes to weaken their movement before local elections due later this year.

In separate developments on Saturday:

  • Two US soldiers were killed in eastern Baghdad, the US military said
  • Turkey said it had killed 15 Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in cross-border shelling on Thursday, and carried out air strikes in the area on Friday.

Stand-off with gunmen locks down Iraqi cities

Posted 1 hour 7 minutes ago

Iraq's main cities of Baghdad and Basra have been locked down amid a deadly stand-off between security forces and Shiite gunmen whose leader, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is defying calls for fighters to lay down their arms.

Pedestrians and vehicles stayed off the streets of the Iraqi capital for a third straight day of curfew, imposed amid intense firefights that have killed at least 90 people in the capital since Tuesday.

The southern oil hub of Basra was relatively calm, residents said, adding however that two neighbourhoods had been bombed during night by US or British jets. The two militaries did not immediately confirm the assaults.

US warplanes had carried out air strikes in the city on Friday and Saturday in which several people were killed, Iraqi and US officials said.

A witness said a vehicle curfew was still in place in the southern port city of Basra but that some pedestrians had dashed out to do some emergency shopping, taking advantage of a relative lull in the fighting.

More than 270 people have been killed since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday ordered troops to launch an assault in Basra on Shiite militiamen he has since described as "worse than Al Qaeda."

Fighting spread from Basra to other Shiite cities, including Baghdad, where authorities Thursday night imposed a round-the-clock curfew.

Iraqi and US-led forces are now engaged in the most intense stand-off with Shiite gunmen since 2004, when Sadr's feared Mahdi Army militia launched a rebellion against American troops in the central city of Najaf.

Most of the fatalities have occurred in Baghdad, where 90 people have died, and in Basra, where the toll stands at around 50.

Basra is the focus of a turf war between the Mahdi Army and two rival Shiite factions - the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and the smaller Fadhila party.

Shops, offices, schools and colleges were closed in the city of 1.5 million people on Sunday.

Other Shiite cities, such as Kut, Hilla, Nasiriyah and Karbala, were also quiet Sunday after heavy clashes earlier in the week.


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