BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – Militants loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr clashed with Iraqi security forces in Basra and Baghdad for a second day on Wednesday in fighting that has killed more than 50 people and wounded hundreds.
The fighting between government forces and Sadr’s followers has spread to other towns in the south where Sadr wields wide influence, as a ceasefire he imposed on his Mehdi Army militia last August unraveled.
U.S. officials say the ceasefire has been a major factor in a reduction in violence in recent months in Iraq where Shi’ite militias have been vying for control in some cities, including oil-rich Basra.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has traveled to Iraq’s second largest city Basra to oversee a military operation to impose government control, said fighters would be spared if they surrendered within 72 hours. Sadr has threatened a countrywide “civil revolt” if attacks on his followers continue.
The worst fighting was in Basra, where a health official said 40 people had been killed and 200 wounded.
In the capital, a health official said 14 people were killed and more than 140 wounded in clashes in Sadr City, the Shi’ite slum named for the cleric’s slain father.
Three U.S. citizens working for the U.S. government in Baghdad were seriously wounded in a mortar attack in the Green Zone, the diplomatic and government compound, a U.S. embassy spokeswoman said.
Police said Sadr fighters had seized control of seven districts in the southern town of Kut. A Reuters witness heard heavy clashes near a government building in the town centre.
The crackdown on Sadr militia is the largest operation yet conducted by Iraq’s military without U.S. or British support, an important test as Washington aims to bring 20,000 troops home and British forces disengaged in the Shi’ite south last year.
Basra police said heavy gunbattles restarted early Wednesday in five districts of Basra after a brief lull. Mortars or rocket attacks regularly struck Iraqi security checkpoints and bases.
Ground commander Major-General Ali Zaidan told Reuters his forces had killed more than 30 militants on the first day of the operation, which began before dawn on Tuesday. More than 25 were wounded and around 50 were captured, he said.
“The operation is still going on and will not stop until it achieves its objectives,” he said. “It is on the same scale as yesterday.”
“Now there is heavy gunfire and I have heard the sounds of explosions. I also saw a group of gunmen planting roadside bombs,” said Abbas, a Basra resident who would only give his first name.
Several mortar rounds struck a police compound in Basra where prisoners were being held. Seven police and three prisoners were wounded.
Two powerful factions of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Sadr’s followers, are fighting for power in Basra along with a smaller Shi’ite party, Fadhila. Sadr’s followers say the security forces and U.S.-led troops are siding with the Council against them.
British forces, which patrolled Basra for nearly five years, withdrew to a base outside the city in December and have not been involved in the fighting.
Washington aims to bring 20,000 of its 160,000 troops home by July after a build-up of troops reduced violence dramatically last year. But violence has increased in the past few months.
Maliki’s government is under pressure to show it can maintain security on its own. U.S. Democratic candidates who hope to succeed President George W. Bush next January are calling for a speedy withdrawal from an unpopular war.
Several towns in southern Iraq were under curfew as authorities sought to prevent further outbreaks of violence.
“We have a shortage of doctors because the American troops are not letting them into Sadr City,” said Ali Bustan, general director of the health office for eastern Baghdad.
Sadr, an influential leader who has not been seen in public for months, issued a statement on Tuesday calling on Iraqis to stage sit-ins all over Iraq and said he would declare “civil revolt” if attacks by U.S. and Iraqi forces continued.
Streets in Basra were largely empty except for Iraqi security forces, and shops remained closed. At least four Iraqi helicopters could be seen hovering over the city.
“The situation is so tense. I did not go to work today. Nobody is going to work,” said Kareem, a Basra resident who would only give his first name. “There are gunmen at every intersection.”
An official with Iraq’s Southern Oil Company said fighting had not affected Basra’s oil output or exports, which provide the vast majority of government revenues.