- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

AMMAN, Jordan — Iraqi troops battled forces loyal to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the southern port city of Basra today, prompting followers of the anti-American cleric to call for nationwide protests, strikes and civil disobedience.

A statement issued at Sheik al-Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf ordered commanders of 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 told Associated Press.

The officer declined to be identified because he wasn’t supposed to release the information.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Basra today, reportedly directing the Iraqi army offensive.

In Baghdad, more than 300 miles to the north, rockets fired from Shi’ite neighborhoods showered the U.S.-protected Green Zone for the second time in a week.

Followers of Sheik al-Sadr also closed schools and shops and waged anti-government protests in the capital and Najaf.

At least 25 persons died in the Basra fighting, officials said.

Reports of fighting spreading throughout the country raised doubts about whether a cease-fire recently extended for six month by Sheik al-Sadr would hold.

The truce that began in August has been a key factor in declining violence cited by the Bush administration as evidence the U.S. troop surge is working.

However, widespread arrests and detentions have prompted an angry reaction from followers of the sheik, who recently said it was OK to shoot back at U.S. and Iraqi forces in self-defense.

Thousands of Iraqi troops raided oil-rich Basra this week in an offensive the Baghdad government said was aimed at disarming militias and restoring the rule of law.

British military officials said Western aircraft were patrolling the skies above Basra to assist Iraqi forces if needed, but that British forces were not taking part in the operation.

Since the British forces returned control of Basra to the Iraqis in December and moved to the city airport, the province’s residents have complained of rising crime as armed Shi’ite groups struggle for control.

The national government — also led by Shi’ites — says the Iraqi military offensive was to restore order and sweep out the criminals and gangs terrorizing the citizens.

Mr. al-Maliki, who on Monday dismissed the two top security officials in Basra, said from the city that the government will restore security, stability and enforce the rule of law.

Officials say the troops were cracking down on all those who point their guns at the state, but Sheik al-Sadr’s followers say the offensive, dubbed Charge of the Knights, was politically motivated and aimed at them.

Although U.S. forces and the Iraqi government have attributed the al-Sadr truce to a reduction in violence, a recent surge in attacks has been blamed on renegade elements from within the Sadrists.

The armed confrontation with the Sadrists and its militant Mahdi Army wing quickly spread in other areas of the country, including Sadr City in the suburbs of Baghdad, where the Mahdi Army declared it had taken control of Iraqi army checkpoints.

Residents reportedly stocked up on food and water supplies in the district in anticipation of more fighting to come.

In an attempt to contain other Sadrist strongholds, the government imposed curfews in the southern Shi’ite cities of Kut, Samawa and Nasiriyah.

Iraqi critics say they expect the Basra offensive to backfire because Sadrists enjoy widespread support, especially from impoverished Shi’ites who dominate Southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad.

The critics suggest the Americans were seeking an internal Iraqi battle to refocus the anti-occupation resistance against the Iraqi authority after the U.S. troop death toll reached 4,000 this week.

They warn, however, that the fighting, whether led by the Iraqi or U.S. forces, threatens to intensify the insurgency and again raise the level of violence in this war-torn country.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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