BAGHDAD, (AP) – Tens of thousands of Shiites took the streets to protest the government’s crackdown on militias in Basra as heavy fighting between Iraqi security forces and gunmen erupted for a third day in the southern oil port and Baghdad.
Iraqi officials reported 17 more people killed in overnight clashes in Baghdad’s main Shiite district of Sadr City and raised the number of deaths from fighting in the southern city of Hillah to at least 60.
Mounting anger focused on Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is personally overseeing an operation against Shiite militias dominated by followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr amid a violent power struggle in Basra, Iraq’s southern oil hub near the Iranian border.
The events threatened to unravel a Mahdi Army cease-fire and spark a dramatic escalation in violence after a monthslong period of relative calm.
There is minimal presence of the U.S.-led coalition in Basra after British forces turned over responsibility for the area to the Iraqis in late December, and the crisis was seen as a test of the Iraqi government’s ability to eventually take over its own security.
Demonstrators in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kazimiyah called al-Maliki a “new dictator” as they carried a coffin bearing a crossed-out picture of the U.S.-backed prime minister, who belongs to a rival political party.
A sea of people also rallied in Sadr City, chanting slogans against the government and in favor of al-Sadr amid rising fears that the cleric’s cease-fire order to his Mahdi Army militia is unraveling.
Sheik Salman al-Feraiji, al-Sadr’s chief representative in Sadr City, issued a statement with demands to quell the discontent, including the release of Sadrist detainees, an end to military operations against them and al-Maliki’s resignation.
Suspected Shiite extremists also hammered the U.S.-protected Green Zone for the fourth day this week, firing several rounds of apparent rockets that sent a huge plume of smoke above the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad.
The U.S. military said 16 rockets slammed into the Green Zone on Wednesday, wounding a U.S. soldier, two American civilians and an Iraqi soldier. An American financial analyst also was killed in this week’s first spate of Green Zone attacks on Sunday.
The violence continued a day after al-Maliki warned gunmen in Basra to surrender their weapons by Friday or face harsher measures, as clashes between security forces and Shiite militia fighters spread throughout the south and in Baghdad.
Despite the ultimatum, heavy gunfire and explosions resounded across Basra while helicopters and jet fighters buzzed overhead. The city’s police chief escaped an assassination attempt late Thursday but three of his guards were killed in the roadside bombing.
Government troops have faced stiff resistance in neighborhoods controlled by the Mahdi Army in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. Residents spoke of militiamen using mortar shells, sniper fire, roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades to fight off security forces.
A Pentagon official said Wednesday that reports from the Basra area indicate that militiamen had overrun a number of police stations and that it was unclear how well the Iraqi security forces were performing overall. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Street battles that started Tuesday in Basra and Sadr City spread to several other neighborhoods and southern cities, leaving nearly 200 dead, including civilians, Iraqi security forces and militants. That three-day figure was a rough estimate provided by police and hospital officials who could not give a more specific breakdown.
The death toll in the Shiite city of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, rose to at least 60, according to a senior police official who asked not to be identified because of security concerns.
He said that was the number of bodies counted after fierce clashes that began on Wednesday and continued Thursday morning.
The U.S. military said four suspected Shiite extremists were killed in an airstrike but it had no further details.
Two American soldiers were also killed Wednesday in separate attacks in Baghdad, the military said.
The Sadrists are angry over recent raids and detentions, saying U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken advantage of the August cease-fire to crack down on the movement.
They have accused rival Shiite parties, which control Iraqi security forces, of engineering the arrests to prevent them from mounting an effective campaign after the Iraqi parliament agreed in February to hold provincial elections by the fall.
The U.S. military has insisted the fight is being led by the Iraqi government and was not against al-Sadr’s movement but breakaway factions believed to be funded and trained by Iran, which has denied the allegations.
President Bush told The Times of London in an interview published Wednesday that the Iraqi government’s decision to “respond forcefully” was a “positive moment in the development of a sovereign nation that is willing to take on elements that believe they are beyond the law.”
The violence also was raising concerns about Iraq’s beleaguered oil industry since Basra accounts for most of the country’s exports.
A bomb struck an oil pipeline Thursday in Basra, a local oil official said, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to release the information.
Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, however, sought to assure international oil companies.
“The security situation in Basra is still unstable … but this has not reflected negatively works at oil output and export installations,” al-Shahristani told the U.S.-funded Radio Sawa.
In other violence reported by police, a booby-trapped car exploded near the Iraqi Red Crescent Society’s offices in Baghdad, killing two civilians and wounding five.
Gunmen also killed a U.S.-allied Sunni fighter and wounded his wife and daughter after storming his house in the northern city of Samarra late Wednesday.