BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi forces
fought Shi'ite militants on Wednesday in battles that threatened to wreck a truce by a powerful cleric that U.S. forces had
credited for much of the reduction in violence of the past year.
More than 60 people have been killed and
hundreds wounded in the fighting, centered on the oil hub of Basra in the south and on Shi'ite neighborhoods of Baghdad where
armed followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold sway.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki,
in Basra overseeing the campaign, said fighters would be spared if they surrendered within 72 hours. Sadr's followers rejected
The assault was the largest military campaign
carried out yet by Maliki's forces without U.S. or British combat units, posing a crucial test for the Iraqi government's
ability to impose its will and allow American forces to withdraw.
"These are Iraqi decisions, they are Iraqi
government forces and these are Iraqi leaders implementing and directing these decisions," U.S. military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner said in
Baghdad. He said U.S. and British backing was limited to small mentoring teams and some air support.
"A year ago the Iraqi security forces would
have struggled to move this force, they would not have been able to support it and it would have been difficult for the government
then to take this strong action," he told a news conference.
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.
Sadr, a young, anti-American cleric, helped
install Maliki in power after an election in 2005 but later broke with him. His followers, known as the Mehdi Army, have feuded with other Shi'ite
groups, especially the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a powerful force in Maliki's government and in the police.
The fighting threatens a ceasefire which
Sadr declared last August, winning praise at the time from U.S. commanders for helping to reduce violence.
Sadr's followers have taken to the streets
demonstrating against Maliki's government and forcing schools, universities and shops to close. On Tuesday he said he would
call a "civil revolt" if attacks against his followers did not stop.
The truce was still in effect, senior Sadr
aide Luwaa Sumaisem told Reuters in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf.
The head of Sadr's office in Basra, Harith
al-Ithari, said the movement was negotiating with Maliki to end the fighting.
"There are ongoing negotiations with the
prime minister. Maliki asked to meet Sadr officials in Basra," he told Reuters. "Things are moving in the direction of solving
The worst fighting has been in Basra, where
a health official said 40 people had been killed and 200 wounded.
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.
A British military spokesman said the assault
was expected to last two to three more days. British forces, which patrolled Basra for nearly five years, have withdrawn to
a base outside the city since December and were not involved in the fighting.
An official with Iraq's Southern Oil Company
said production in the Basra area could be disrupted if the fighting continues for more than three days, preventing employees
from reaching work. The area produces 80 percent of Iraq's oil exports.
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, where the younger
Sadr and his Mehdi Army
militia have widespread influence.
Bergner said rogue Mehdi Army units linked to Iran were responsible for days of constant
mortar strikes on the Green Zone diplomatic and government compound and other Baghdad areas.
One mortar bomb on the Green Zone seriously
hurt three U.S. civilians. Mortar attacks killed five people and wounded 21 in the Karrada neighborhood and killed four in
Elsewhere in the south, Sadr fighters seized
control of seven districts in the town of Kut. A Reuters witness heard clashes near a government building. Residential buildings and cars were on
fire and mortar explosions could be heard.