BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The death toll mounted on Saturday in fighting in Baghdad where U.S. forces have been drawn deeper into an Iraqi government crackdown on militants loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
A top Sadr aide said Sadr’s representatives had met Iraq’s highest Shi’ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in an effort to end the violence. The Sadr aide, Salah al-Ubaidi, said Sistani called for a peaceful solution.
At least 75 people have been killed and more than 450 wounded in days of clashes and U.S. air strikes in Sadr City, a vast slum of about 2 million people, said Qassim Mohammed, spokesman for the health directorate for eastern Baghdad.
Health workers say the slum’s two hospitals are overflowing and understaffed, and a ring of Iraqi and U.S. forces around Sadr City makes it impossible to evacuate the wounded.
More than 200 people have been reported killed and many hundreds wounded in the five days of fighting across southern Iraq and Baghdad since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on Sadr’s followers in the southern city of Basra.
Maliki has announced he will fight the militants in Basra “until the end.” He issued orders to his commanders in Baghdad to pursue militants in the capital with “no mercy.”
Washington says the crackdown is a sign the Iraqi government is serious about imposing its will and capable of acting on its own. But so far government forces have failed to drive Sadr’s fighters from the streets.
U.S. forces described a number of gun battles in Baghdad including one in which they said they killed 10 gunmen who attacked a joint U.S.-Iraqi security station. The Americans have used helicopter gunships and artillery.
Mortar bombs and rockets have caused havoc in the capital all week. Strikes on the fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic compound forced the U.S. embassy to order staff to wear helmets and body armor.
A curfew is in place in Baghdad, closing shops, businesses and schools. Residents are confined to their homes in areas where there has been fighting.
The conflict exposes a deep rift within Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community, between the political parties in Maliki’s government who control the security forces and Sadr’s followers who in many areas rule the streets.
Sistani almost never intervenes in politics. His views, if made public, would carry authority among Shi’ites in Sadr’s movement and in the political parties that support Maliki.
A spokesman for Sistani in Beirut declined to comment on the reported meeting with Sadr’s representatives.
In Basra, where the main fighting has raged for days, witnesses said warplanes from the U.S.-British coalition had bombed for a second straight day.
The air strikes require U.S. or British teams on the ground to direct them, indications that Western involvement has been growing in what so far has been an Iraqi-led operation.
A main British force of 4,100 troops, which pulled out of Basra in December, has remained on a base outside it and British officials have said they have no plans to retake the city.
Iraqi commanders say they have killed 120 fighters. Reuters television pictures from Basra show masked gunmen from Sadr’s Mehdi Army walking openly in the streets, firing mortars and brandishing rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers.
Maliki, who had initially given them 72 hours to surrender, extended the deadline until April 8 for the fighters to turn over weapons in return for cash. They remained defiant.
“We will fight on and never give up our weapons,” Mehdi Army deputy military commander in Basra Abu Hassan al-Daraji told Reuters by telephone. “We will not turn over a single bullet.”
Fighting has spread to other towns across the south.
Clashes were under way on the western outskirts of Kerbala, one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest cities. The Iraqi commander in the province, Major-General Raad Jawdat, said his forces had killed 21 “outlaws” and arrested 50 others.
Hundreds of demonstrators turned out to protest against fighting in Nassiriya, a Reuters witness said. Mehdi Army fighters had seized the main streets on Friday and 15 people were killed in clashes, police said.
Among other cities that have been hit by clashes are Kut, Hilla, Amara and Kerbala.