- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces clashed with Shiite militiamen today in the southern oil port of Basra and gunmen patrolled several Baghdad neighborhoods as followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered a nationwide civil disobedience campaign to demand an end to the crackdown on their movement.

Explosions rang out across central Baghdad as rockets or mortars fired from Shiite areas targeted the U.S.-protected Green Zone for the second time this week. The violence was part of an escalation in the confrontation between the Shiite-run government and Sheik al-Sadr’s followers — a move that threatens the security gains achieved by U.S. and Iraqi forces. At least 22 people were killed in the Basra fighting.

Sheik Al-Sadr’s allies have grown increasingly angry over raids and detentions against them by U.S. and Iraqi forces, who insist the crackdown only affects rogue elements loyal to Iran.

Sheik Al-Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf also ordered field commanders with his Mahdi Army militia to go on maximum alert and prepare “to strike the occupiers” — a term used to describe U.S. forces — and their Iraqi allies, a militia officer said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t supposed to release the information.

Sheik Al-Sadr has imposed a cease-fire on his militia fighters through mid-August, a move that is one of the key factors in a steep drop in violence over the past several months. But the truce is fraying.

Lawmakers from Sheik al-Sadr’s movement announced in a Baghdad press conference that a civil disobedience campaign which began in selected neighborhoods of the capital was being expanded nationwide.

Stores and schools were closed in several other predominantly Shiite neighborhoods in the capital, apparently in compliance with the civil disobedience order. Armed Mahdi Army members were seen patrolling the streets in some Shiite neighborhoods of the capital. In Basra, Iraqi soldiers and police battled Mahdi fighters for control of key neighborhoods in Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. The fighting erupted a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flew there to supervise a security crackdown against the militias.

In other violence, two bombs exploded in central Baghdad, killing one civilian and wounding eight others, and a U.S.-allied Sunni fighter also was killed in a drive-by shooting northeast of the capital, police said.

Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi, Sinan Salaheddin and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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