TOPICS > Nation

Iraq Leader Gives Basra Gunmen Ultimatum

BY Admin  March 26, 2008 at 1:15 PM EST

SIgn depicts al-Maliki as a U.S. pawn; AP photo

Al-Maliki remained in Basra on the second day of clashes to
supervise a crackdown against the spiraling violence between militia factions
vying for control of the southern oil city.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top adviser to al-Maliki, said gunmen
will be targeted for arrest unless they surrender their weapons to police
stations in Basra
by Friday and sign a pledge renouncing violence, The Associated Press reported.

An official with Iraq’s
Southern Oil Company said fighting had not affected Basra’s oil output or exports, which provide
the vast majority of government revenues.

Suspected Shiite extremists also unleashed projectiles
against the U.S.-protected Green Zone in central Baghdad for the third day this
week, but no group claimed responsibility. Three Americans were seriously
injured in the attacks, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said. At
least eight Iraqis also were killed after rounds fell short in several areas of
Baghdad.

At least 55 people have been killed and 300 wounded in Basra and Baghdad
after the fighting spread to the capital’s main Shiite district of Sadr City,
police and hospital officials told the AP.

This week’s violence has elevated fears that the cease-fire
declared in August by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could unravel, presenting
the gravest challenge to the Iraqi government in months.

If al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia resumes intense fighting, it
could kill more U.S. troops and
threaten – at least temporarily – security gains hailed by Washington
as signs that Iraq
is headed toward peace.

Officials in al-Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf, speaking on
condition of anonymity, told the AP that the anti-U.S. cleric had sent local
representatives to ask al-Maliki to leave Basra
and resolve the problems peacefully. The aides also told the government no
negotiations could be held until Iraqi reinforcements withdrew from the city.

Sadr, who has not appeared in public for months, issued a
statement Tuesday calling on Iraqis to stage sit-ins all over Iraq and said he
would declare “civil revolt” if attacks by U.S. and Iraqi forces
continued, Reuters reported.

U.S.
military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner insisted the Sadrists were not being
singled out and blamed Iranian-backed rogue militia factions for the recent violence,
although he declined to link Iran
directly to the fighting.

Bergner also noted the Iraqi government was taking the lead
in the Basra operation, although U.S.
troops were involved as members of transition teams helping train the Iraqis.

He said the Iraqi government had appealed to Iran to help restore calm in Basra.

“This is not a battle against the (Mahdi Army) nor is
it a proxy war between the United States
and Iran,”
he said. “It is the government of Iraq taking the necessary action to
deal with criminals on the streets.”

Iraqi reinforcements were sent to Basra
from the Shiite holy city of Karbala,
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said, adding a large
number of gunmen have been detained.

British troops have remained at their base at the airport
outside Basra
and were not involved in the ground fighting, although British planes were
providing air surveillance, according to the British Ministry of Defense. It
said the Iraqis had not asked the British to intervene. British forces turned
over responsibility for Basra
to the Iraqis in late December but say they will assist the Iraqis upon
request.

Hundreds of Sadr City residents took to the streets on Wednesday,
demanding the government stop military operations in Basra and other cities and withdraw all
security forces.

Intense fighting began Tuesday morning in Basra
as rival factions of Iraq’s
Shiite majority and criminal gangs are competing for control of the southern
oil hub, considered the center of the national economy.

The city has since become the scene of a bitter turf war
between the Mahdi Army, the Badr organization allied to the Supreme Iraqi
Islamic Council of powerful politician Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, and the smaller
Shiite party, Fadhila, ahead of provincial elections in October.

Criminal gangs are also vying for control of lucrative
oil-smuggling routes.

The power struggle has been marked by assassinations and
kidnappings. The city’s police chief has escaped a number of attempts on his
life.

An indefinite 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was imposed by
authorities in Basra
and the central-southern Shiite cities of Kut, Samawa, Nasiriyah and Hilla.