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Iraqi forces clash with militias in southern oil hub
Iraq Basra BAG103 5131225
Iraqi police take defensive positions in Basra, Iraq, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, March 25, 2008. Iraqi forces clashed with Shiite militias in the southern oil port of Basra on Tuesday as a security plan to clamp down on violence between rival militia factions in the region began. - photo by Associated Press
    BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces clashed with Shiite militiamen Tuesday in the southern oil port of Basra and rockets rained down on the U.S.-protected Green Zone in Baghdad as followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr expanded a nationwide backlash against government crackdowns.
    The U.S. Embassy said no deaths or serious casualties were reported in the Green Zone attacks — the second major barrage this week launched from Shiite areas. Two rockets landed on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s compound, but did not explode, an Iraqi government security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose the information.
    Al-Maliki was in Basra, where he is supervising the operation against the Shiite militia fighters. At least 25 people were killed in the Basra fighting, officials said.
    The violence marked a stunning escalation in the confrontation between the Shiite-run government and al-Sadr’s forces, who have bitterly complained about the recent arrests of hundreds of backers.
    The clashes also threaten to reverse the security gains achieved by U.S. and Iraqi forces. The Bush administration has hailed the decline in violence as a key sign that Iraq is headed for better days.
    Al-Sadr declared a unilateral cease-fire last August. That move — along with a U.S. troop buildup and a Sunni alliance with the American forces — has contributed to a steep drop in violence.
    But the truce is now under serious pressure. Al-Sadr’s allies have grown increasingly angry over U.S. and Iraqi raids and detentions, demanding the release of followers.
    The cleric recently told his followers that the cease-fire remains in effect but that they were free to defend themselves against attacks.
    Al-Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf also ordered field commanders with his Mahdi Army militia to go on maximum alert and prepare ‘‘to strike the occupiers’’ — a term used to describe U.S. forces — and their Iraqi allies, a militia officer said. He declined to be identified because he wasn’t supposed to release the information.
    More than 2,000 supporters of al-Sadr danced through the streets with olive branches and copies of the Quran during demonstrations in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Similar protests were held earlier in the day in Baghdad.
    Lawmakers from al-Sadr’s movement announced in a Baghdad press conference that a general strike campaign — which began in selected neighborhoods of the capital and included the closure of businesses and schools — was being expanded nationwide.
    Three police officers were kidnapped from a checkpoint in eastern Baghdad, a police official said on condition on anonymity because he wasn’t supposed to release the information.
    Stores and schools also were closed in several other predominantly Shiite neighborhoods in the capital, and armed Mahdi Army members were seen patrolling the streets in some Shiite neighborhoods of the capital.
    In Basra, Iraqi soldiers and police battled Mahdi fighters for control of key neighborhoods in Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. The fighting erupted a day after al-Maliki flew there and announced the security crackdown against the militias.
    AP Television News video showed smoke from explosions rising over the city and Iraqi soldiers exchanging gunfire with militia members.
    Basra accounts for most of Iraq’s oil exports, but an oil ministry official, declining to be identified because he wasn’t supposed to publicly discuss the sensitive issue, said production and exports had not been affected by the fighting.
    Curfews were also imposed in the Shiite cities of Kut, where a large number of Mahdi Army gunmen were seen deploying on the streets, and Nasiriyah.
    In Baghdad, suspected Mahdi Army gunmen exchanged gunfire with security guards of the rival Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council in Sadr City, police said.
    The rising tension led many people in Shiite neighborhoods to stay at home rather than venture into contested streets.
    Athra Ali, 27, a government employee who lives in the Hurriyah neighborhood, said she decided not to go to work after seeing many shops closed and streets abandoned.
    A university lecturer at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University also said the institution had closed early and sent students home.
    Security in Basra had been steadily declining well before the British handed over responsibility for security to the Iraqis on Dec. 16.
    Col. Karim al-Zaidi, spokesman for the Iraq military, said security forces were encountering stiff resistance from Mahdi Army gunmen in the city.
    The U.S. military said Tuesday that five suspected militants were killed in Basra while attempting to place a roadside bomb. Ten others were injured after being spotted conducting suspicious activity, the statement said.
    British troops remained at their base at the airport outside Basra and were not involved in the ground fighting Tuesday, according to the British Ministry of Defense.
    But three British jets provided aerial surveillance for the Iraqi forces, said Maj. Tom Holloway, a military spokesman in Basra.
    He said the British jets have not dropped any bombs because the Iraqi forces ‘‘haven’t yet asked.’’
    U.S. officials have insisted they are not going after Sadrists who respect the cease-fire. Instead, the Americans are targeting rogue elements, known as ‘‘special groups,’’ that the military believes have ties to Iran. Tehran denies that it is fueling the violence.
    The U.S. military blamed Iranian-backed Shiite militia factions for a spate of rocket attacks that struck the Green Zone and surrounding areas on Monday.
    The Sadrists allege that rival militia factions have infiltrated the security forces and are targeting the movement to gain advantage in provincial elections expected this fall.
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    Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi, Sinan Salaheddin and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.