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U.S. Appears to Take Lead in Fighting in Baghdad

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On Thursday, thousands of followers of Sadr turned out for a peaceful demonstration in Baghdad. Iraqi television channels carried crowd scenes in which people carried a coffin draped in flags and decorated with a portrait of Maliki. They denounced him as a "new dictator" and chanted: "Maliki, keep your hands off. People do not want you."

Gunmen wearing police commando uniforms stormed the Baghdad home of a well-known member of Maliki's government, Tahseen al-Sheikhli, and took him hostage, according to the Information Ministry. Sheikhli is a chief spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, in charge of building public support for government efforts to quell violence in the city.

As fighting continued in Basra, saboteurs blew up one of the city's main oil pipelines. Gunmen opened fire on the city's police chief, wounding him and killing three of his bodyguards.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammad, director of military operations at Iraq's Defense Ministry, said the Basra operation would continue until security forces captured the outlaws or wiped them out. He said the Iraqi military planned to seal and search every neighborhood to capture suspected criminals and confiscate weapons.

But an adviser to Iraqi security forces, who had predicted that the fight in Basra would take 10 days, said it could go on much longer. He also said Iraqi forces were calling on U.S. and British forces for help. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he was not authorized to speak with reporters.

"I think the government can't win this battle without interference of Americans or British," he said. "I think the aid or assistance is on the way." In his view, the Iraqi military needed air coverage and help with logistics and intelligence.

The fighters "are opening many, many fronts against the army," he said. The adviser said the militia's weapons, some of them made in Iran, are more powerful than those of the Iraqi army.

So far, casualties in Basra on all sides have totaled about 400 killed and 300 wounded, he said.

Holloway, the British military spokesman, said Iraqi security forces were "consolidating their current positions" and preparing for the next stage of the offensive. They were cordoning off areas and trying to gain control of the city "bite-size chunk by bite-size chunk."

Residents in Basra said they observed Mahdi Army militiamen gathering in their neighborhood stronghold of Jumhuriyah, assembling men and weapons while dodging gunfire from Iraqi army snipers at intersections.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Howard Schneider in Washington and special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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