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US forces drawn deeper into Iraq crackdown

United States forces were drawn deeper into Iraq’s four day-old crackdown on Shi’ite militants on Friday, launching air strikes in Basra for the first time and battling militants in Baghdad.

The fighting has exposed a rift within the majority Shi’ite community and put pressure on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose forces have failed to drive fighters loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr off the streets of Iraq’s second-largest city.

Defence Minister Abdel Qader Jassim acknowledged at a news conference in Basra that Iraqi security forces had been caught off-guard by the strength of the opposition.

”We supposed that this operation would be a normal operation, but we were surprised by this resistance and have been obliged to change our plans and our tactics,” he said.

Journalists attending the conference had to be escorted by Iraqi military vehicles. When the briefing was over they were unable to leave because of clashes taking place in the vicinity.

Lawmakers, including al-Sadr loyalists, were due to meet in an emergency session of Parliament to seek an end to the impasse.

Iraqi authorities shut down Baghdad with a strict curfew on Friday but there was little let-up in the rocket and mortar barrages that have wreaked havoc in the capital this week.

The United States embassy ordered its staff in the Green Zone diplomatic and government compound to stay under cover when possible and wear body armour and helmets when in the open. A salvo of missiles exploded in the zone at 2.30pm (11.30am GMT).

The Green Zone office of Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, was hit in a missile attack but he was not there at the time. One security guard was killed, an official in his office said.

The government says it is fighting ”outlaws”, but al-Sadr’s followers say political parties in al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government are using military force to marginalise their rivals ahead of local elections due by October.

The Iraqi ground commander in Basra, Major-General Ali Zaidan, told Reuters his forces had killed 120 ”enemy” fighters and wounded around 450 since the campaign began on Tuesday.

But Reuters television footage from Basra showed masked gunmen from al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army still in control of the streets, openly carrying rocket launchers and machine guns.

A British Ministry of Defence spokesperson said US warplanes had opened fire in Basra for the first time, dropping bombs in support of Iraqi units on the ground.

British ground troops which patrolled Basra until December have so far remained on a base outside the city, but British or US controllers would have been needed to call the air strikes.

The fighting has trapped many Basra residents in their homes, raising fears of a humanitarian emergency. The United Nations said its aid agencies were standing by with supplies including blood bags, trauma kits, 200 tonnes of emergency food and 39-million water purification tablets.

Gunmen seize Nassiriya

Al-Sadr, who helped install al-Maliki in power after an election in 2005 but later broke with him, has called for talks with the government. But al-Maliki has vowed to battle what he calls criminal gangs in Basra ”to the end”.

The clashes have all but wrecked a truce al-Sadr declared last year, which Washington had said helped curb violence.

A Reuters witness said Mehdi Army gunmen had seized control of Nassiriya, capital of the southerly Dhi Qar province. Mehdi Army fighters have held territory or fought with authorities in Kut, Hilla, Amara, Kerbala, Diwaniya and other towns throughout the Shi’ite south over the past several days.

In Baghdad there have been clashes in at least 13 mainly Shi’ite neighbourhoods, especially Sadr City, the vast slum which is named after the cleric’s slain father and where his followers maintain their power base.

”There have been engagements going on in and around Sadr City. We’ve engaged the enemy with artillery, we’ve engaged the enemy with aircraft, we’ve engaged the enemy with direct fire,” said Major Mark Cheadle, a spokesperson for US forces in Baghdad.

In one strike before dawn, a US helicopter fired a hellfire missile at gunmen firing from the roof of a building, killing four of them, Cheadle said. A Reuters photographer there filmed windows blown out of cars and walls pocked with shrapnel.

Later in the day cars were engulfed in flames after an apparent air strike on a Sadr City parking lot.

US forces said they killed 27 fighters in operations in the capital on Thursday.

In Nassiriya, a Reuters reporter said he could see groups of fighters with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The sound of sporadic gunfire echoed through the streets. Police appeared to be staying in their stations.

Militants have also taken control of the town of Shatra, 40km to the north, he said, citing witnesses.

On Wednesday Maliki gave militants in Basra 72 hours to surrender. With that deadline looming, he said on Friday they would now be given until April 8 to hand over weapons for cash.

Oil exports from Basra of more than 1,5-million barrels a day provide 80% of Iraq’s government revenue. An explosion at a pipeline damaged exports on Thursday, but they were back to normal on Friday. – Reuters

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