Sadrist Basra militia ordered to defy call to lay down arms as US, UK intensify air bombardment

Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr Saturday, March 29, told his militiamen in Basra not to obey the order to lay down arms issued by the Iraqi government which launched a crackdown on militias five days ago. As the Shiite versus Shiite warfare spread to other cities in the south, the troops commanded by Iraq’s Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to dislodge the militias led by Sadr’s Medhi Army from their strongholds in Basra, Iraq’s third largest city and main oil port.
From a go-it-alone Iraqi venture on Tuesday, Maliki was reduced by Friday to calling on US and UK forces, which deployed warplanes to bomb militia targets in Basra Friday and Saturday. Both are looking into complaints of civilian casualties.
Maliki, who has put his government on the line by his offensive against fellow Shiites, again vowed not to leave Basra until his army has removed the armed gangs controlling Iraq’s third largest city and only oil port for nearly three years – thus far with little success.
Friday, he extended an ultimatum for armed combatants to surrender their weapons from Saturday night to April 8 – in return for cash.
Shiites are attacking American troops in their districts in breach of the second six-month ceasefire Moqtada Sadr declared last month.
In Baghdad, which is under a three-day curfew, Iraqi police reported US helicopter strikes in the Shiite Sadr City Friday night. The US military reported an assault west of Shiite district and said 10 armed men had been killed. Other reports speak of 75 civilians killed in a week of clashes and air strikes against the angry and restive Sadr City population.
The Maliki government faced another sort of challenge in Baghdad – defections, when 40 policemen, their faces covered, handed over their weapons to the Mehdi Army’s office in the Shiite district, saying they could not fight their brothers.
Saturday too, rockets were again lobbed at the Green Zone seat of government and the US embassy. No injuries were reported.
US embassy staff in Baghdad have been told not to leave reinforced structures and wear protective clothing including helmets following the rocket attacks on the Green Zone – 16 Wednesday and 12 Tuesday – which left two US government employees dead.
In Tehran, Iran called for an end to fighting between Iraqi government forces and Shiite militias. Washington accuses Tehran of funding, training and equipping Iraqi militias. Friday, President George W. Bush said Iraq was facing a defining moment and he wanted to send Iran a clear message that it could not have its way in the Middle East.
Iran has closed its Shalamsheh border crossing near Basra until further notice “due to security problems.”

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