/ 27 March 2008

Iraq PM gives Basra gunmen 72 hours to disarm

Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, on Wednesday gave Shi’ite militia and other gunmen a 72-hour deadline to surrender their weapons as his forces engaged in fierce street battles in the southern city of Basra for the second day running.

As the United States-protected green zone in Baghdad came under renewed attack from rockets and mortars, American officials insisted that members of the Mehdi army — followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — were not being singled out in the Iraqi forces’ ”surge” in Basra.

They blamed Iranian-backed rogue militia elements for the violence in Basra and Baghdad, which has killed more than 70 people, according to Iraqi officials and news agency reports. British commanders told the Guardian that ”renegade groups” and criminal gangs were responsible for the violence.

The 4 100 British troops based at Basra airport are not taking part in the operation, though Iraqi helicopters have been refuelled at the airport.

Major Tom Holloway, a British military spokesperson in Iraq, said: ”The Iraqi authorities have planned and are executing the operation, it is very much their business.” He said it was ”highly unlikely” that British troops would go into the city.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, one of Maliki’s advisers, said that gunmen in Basra who turned over their weapons to police stations and signed a promise to renounce violence would not face prosecution. But ”any gunman who does not do that within these three days will be an outlaw”, he said.

Sadr was reported to have called for talks to end the fighting between government forces and his followers, the biggest military operation Iraqi forces have undertaken independent of American or British combat troops.

A senior Sadr aide, Luwaa Sumaisem, told the Reuters news agency that the truce Sadr agreed last August, and recently said he renewed, was still in place.

On Wednesday the cleric’s followers took to the streets to demonstrate against Maliki’s government, forcing schools, universities and shops to close, news agencies reported. On Tuesday, Sadr threatened to call a ”civil revolt” if attacks against his followers did not stop.

The head of Sadr’s office in Basra, Harith al-Ithari, said the movement was negotiating with Maliki to end the fighting. ”There are ongoing negotiations with the prime minister. Maliki asked to meet Sadr officials in Basra,” he told Reuters. Another top aide, Hassan al-Zargani, read to Reuters what he said was a statement from Sadr calling on Maliki to leave Basra and appoint a delegation to hold talks.

US military officials insisted that the fighting was neither a battle against the Mehdi army, nor a proxy war between Washington and Tehran. ”It is the government of Iraq taking the necessary action to deal with criminals on the streets”, said Major General Kevin Bergner.

In Washington, a White House spokesperson said: ”This is Prime Minister Maliki taking bold action in dealing with the situation in Basra. So we applaud it.”

The prime minister has been supervising the crackdown from a military base in Basra, sources said.

Shi’ite militia have also been fighting US and Iraqi forces in the Shi’ite Baghdad neighbourhoods of al-Baiyaa, Shaab and Kazimiyah, as well as Hillah, south of Baghdad.

Hundreds of Sadr supporters were reported to have taken to the streets on Wednesday in Baghdad and Kerbala, demanding that the government stop military operations in Basra and withdraw all security forces. Police said at least 10 people, including a baby girl, were killed and 31 wounded in clashes in Kut, south of Baghdad.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks against the Baghdad green zone, which includes the US and British embassies and the Iraqi government headquarters. Bergner said those responsible were rogue Mehdi army units linked to Iran. — Â