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Roadside bomb strikes Iraqi military convoy during show of force in Basra
Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari shouts instructions to Iraqi Army soldiers to secure a street in a show of force in a militia stronghold that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the southern city of Basra some 550 kilometers (about 340 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, April 2, 2008. An Iraqi commander led a convoy of troops firing into the air Wednesday in a show of force in a militia stronghold that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the southern city of Basra. - photo by Associated Press
    BAGHDAD — A roadside bomb struck an armored vehicle carrying an Iraqi commander and a senior defense official Wednesday as they entered a Shiite militia stronghold that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the southern city of Basra.
    Nobody was hurt in the blast, said Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari, who was in the vehicle. But an Iraqi cameraman for U.S.-funded Alhurra TV was shot and wounded in a separate attack as he filmed a show of force by Iraqi troops in the oil-rich city.
    The government forces did not face the widespread resistance of recent days as they moved toward the sprawling Hayaniyah district in central Basra and drove through the main streets. But the violence underscored the tenuous nature of the peace that emerged from a cease-fire largely ending a week of clashes between the government and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
    Mahdi Army officials in Basra said they tolerated the government move in compliance with the Iranian-brokered deal between the radical Shiite cleric and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had promised a ‘‘final and decisive battle.’’
    The militia warned, however, that it would fight back if security forces resumed large-scale raids and arrests without warrants.
    A Mahdi Army spokesman known as Abu Liqa al-Basri said Iraqi forces raided some houses in Hayaniyah, then withdrew to a single main street.
    He said people were moving freely in the sprawling area and gunmen were keeping a low profile. But he accused the Iraqi security forces of creating a ‘‘crisis of trust’’ by violating al-Maliki’s order not to detain people without warrants.
    ‘‘Al-Maliki’s orders are the safety valve,’’ he said. ‘‘If the Iraqi army continues in its provocative raids, the consequences will be bad.’’
    The roadside bomb exploded under the Humvee carrying Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, who heads the joint Iraqi army-police forces in the area. The vehicle was leading a convoy into Hayaniyah at about 9:30 a.m., with troops firing their weapons into the air to clear traffic.
    Al-Askari said the vehicle was severely damaged but there were no casualties.
    AP Television News footage showed Iraqi commandos on foot guarding the convoy nervously as the Humvees drove through the streets before dispersing after about an hour.
    Al-Maliki returned to Baghdad Tuesday after personally overseeing the Basra crackdown, which he launched with the promise of ‘‘a decisive and final battle.’’ Iraqi security forces failed to crush the militias and the prime minister was left politically battered.
    The faltering effort to drive Shiite militias from Basra has raised doubts about whether the Iraqis are capable of maintaining security in Iraq just a week before top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus is to brief Congress about prospects for further American troop cuts.
    Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that it will take a while to figure out who won and who lost in last week’s fighting but he commended the government’s desire to confront the militias in Basra.
    In Baghdad, however, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner conceded there were problems in the Basra operation.
    ‘‘Overall the majority of the Iraqi security forces performed their mission though some were not up to the task,’’ Bergner said at a news conference.
    A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. convoy exploded near a restaurant in Baghdad’s main Shiite district of Sadr City, killing at least three Iraqi civilians and wounding 13, police said.
    U.S. and Iraqi officials have insisted the target of the crackdown was not the Sadrist political movement but criminals and renegade militias. But the Sadrists believed the operation was aimed at weakening their movement before provincial elections this fall.
    Fighting eased after al-Sadr called his fighters off the streets Sunday under the cease-fire deal, which was brokered by Iran after clashes spread to Baghdad and other southern cities.
    Al-Sadr called in his cease-fire order for the government to stop ‘‘illegal and haphazard raids.’’ Officials said al-Maliki had agreed that arrests should only be made with warrants.
    The gunmen did not to surrender their weapons and several Basra neighborhoods appeared to remain under militia control — developments that left al-Sadr in a position of power.
    The wounded Iraqi cameraman for Alhurra TV, Mazin al-Tayar, told The Associated Press at the hospital that he was shot at twice while traveling with the convoy to film the event.
    One bullet missed but the other struck his left leg, leaving his clothes and his camera soaked in blood. He was in stable condition.
    The Basra joint operations center also announced that Iraqi soldiers had detained two suspected militia figures in the Qibla area, but a gunbattle broke out during the raid and an Iraqi army vehicle was set on fire.
    The Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said Tuesday that 200 people had been killed, 600 wounded and 170 suspects detained during operations in Basra and he reiterated that an April 8 deadline for gunmen to surrender their weapons would be maintained.
    The provincial governor, Mohammed al-Waili, said the overall situation in the city was ‘‘very calm and stable’’ and a measure of normalcy was returning.
    ‘‘We issued orders to all government employees to go to their offices starting from today and they will be obliged to work their full schedule,’’ he said.
    On Tuesday, Britain froze plans to withdraw about 1,500 soldiers from its 4,000-strong military force concentrated in the Basra area this spring and hand over more security responsibility to the Iraqis.
    ‘‘It is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding,’’ British Defense Secretary Des Browne told the House of Commons.
    Suspected al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents, meanwhile, continued their campaign against fellow Sunnis who have joined forces with the Americans against the terror network.
    Four of the U.S.-allied fighters were killed Wednesday and four others abducted at a fake checkpoint near Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
    Associated Press correspondent Bushra Juhi and staff in Basra contributed to this report.

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