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Sadr Followers Protest Security Crackdown

Demonstrators hold a picture of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while chanting slogans during a protest in Baghdad against a three day-old crackdown against his followers.
Demonstrators hold a picture of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while chanting slogans during a protest in Baghdad against a three day-old crackdown against his followers. (Ceerwan Aziz -- Reuters)

Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni legislator, said it was highly unlikely that the troops could destroy Basra's militia presence in a few days. But the offensive, he said, illustrated the Iraqi government's "strong willingness" to tackle the gangs and sends a message to the United States that "we need to have more know-how and training."

The government has moved about 2,000 extra troops to the city for the push, according to Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a senior U.S. military spokesman. A year ago, he said, it would have struggled to move a force of that size. He said the fighting is aimed at enforcing the rule of law in Basra and is not a battle against the Mahdi Army or "a proxy war between the United States and Iran."

The fighting spread to other parts of Iraq on Wednesday. A U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside bomb attack in a Mahdi Army-controlled area in Baghdad where U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with militiamen throughout the day, U.S. military sources said. A second U.S. soldier was killed in a separate attack.

In the south, clashes broke out in a Sadr stronghold in Diwaniyah, killing an Iraqi soldier and a policeman, and wounding 13 Iraqi soldiers and policemen. Two gunmen died, according to Col. Ghassan Muhammad of the Diwaniyah emergency police.

Late Wednesday night, U.S. forces bombed Mahdi Army bases in three districts of the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, killing or wounding as many as 60 people, many of whom were fighters, according to Capt. Muthanna Ahmad, spokesman for the Babil province police. Television footage showed black smoke over the city.

A U.S. military spokesman said the military had no reports of such an attack.

Bergner called the people firing rockets into the Green Zone and other Baghdad neighborhoods "criminals who are dishonoring" Sadr's cease-fire pledge. Immediately after his briefing, the sounds of explosions sent reporters scrambling for cover in a small bunker.

In Basra, besieged residents described growing deprivation.

"The problem now is with the families' daily needs," said Hassan Diksin, 45, a Basra engineer reached by phone. "Limited amounts of food in the houses, no fuel for the electrical generators, no medicines because no one is open and all shops closed. Even bread is hard to get."

"Nobody can move," said Hassan Muhammad Jasim, an emergency aid worker who lives in the Jubaila neighborhood in central Basra. Since Tuesday night, he's lived with the sound of heavy gunfire.

In one neighborhood, a 23-year-old man carrying food and clean water for his family was shot, witnesses said. People called an ambulance, but there was no response. He bled to death.

If the military operation lasts longer than a week, said Ali Abbas Khafeef, 58, his household of four will run out of food. He said he needs medicine to treat stomach problems and a continuous headache. But he said all of it is worth it if the Iraqi military can bring the city under control.


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