Surge in Violence Worries Baghdad

In Iraq, Shiite militia men loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr are fighting for control of the southern city of Basra. As the violence spreads to Baghdad, Iraq's president is giving militants three days to lay down their weapons.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Overlooking historic Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, this is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We're your home for news, information and today, talking to yourself. I'm Alison Stewart, guilty as charged.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

And I'm Rachel Martin, also talking to myself quite frequently down on the other side of the office. It's Wednesday, March 26th, 2008. I talk to myself a lot because I don't really have it together most of the time, and today was no different. This morning I went through all this extra effort. I also, note, put on jewelry, I accessorized. I thought, I'm going to look nice at work today.

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MARTIN: The best laid plans of mice and men. I got to work, forgot my keys, sat in the hallway outside the office for 45 minutes waiting for someone to let me in.

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MARTIN: Miss Alison Stewart is wearing one brown sock and one black sock.

STEWART: Yes! That's what happens when you get up early in the morning.

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STEWART: Yeah, we've got it together here at the Bryant Park Project.

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STEWART: We'll be talking about some other people who don't quite have it together at work. You know who they are. The people who are sitting at their cubicles talking to themselves. Jared Sandberg from the Wall Street Journal, friend of the BPP, will join us today.

MARTIN: Also, on the show this morning, it's been almost a year since the shooting at Virginia Tech. Thirty-three people were killed in that massacre. Since then, lots of schools have beefed up their crisis drills and preparedness procedures. We are going to talk to someone who works on this issue. He works with schools on how to prepare them for times of crisis.

STEWART: And a Pennsylvania farmer says he's going to stop growing tomatoes because of Congress' inability to pass immigration reform. Now, one of the big deals is he is one of the largest tomato growers - has a 2,000-acre farm. It's one of these huge farms. He will be on the line to explain more about why he is doing it.

MARTIN: Also, we have the best song in the world today. What will it be? Stay tuned to find out. We're going to walk you through the day's headlines in just a minute, but first...

STEWART: In Iraq, the nation's prime minister is giving militants three days to lay down their weapons. Shiite militiamen loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are fighting for control of the southern city of Basra, and that fighting has now spread to Baghdad. Today more than 50 people have been killed, and hundreds wounded in the clashes.

MARTIN: More on Basra in a minute. First, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston was in the streets of Baghdad earlier today. Here's what she saw.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The armed Mahdi army militiamen are openly out on Baghdad streets for the first time in more than six months today. The Mahdi army members have always been there, but they have always been sort of lurking in the shadows and trying to avoid confrontation. Now, there's an open confrontation going on.

STEWART: American troops have gone into Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a Mahdi army stronghold, where we're getting reports of intense firefights. Yesterday, 20 people were killed, and 115 wounded in that neighborhood alone.

MARTIN: Dina Temple-Reston says that while the fighting remains largely isolated to that area, the uptick in violence has many people in Iraq's capital concerned.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's relatively limited, but there's this sense in the city as I was walking around this morning that another shoe is going to drop. The question is what that shoe is going to be, and how bad it's going to be. That's what the problem is. You know, all this is taking place while the U.S. military is trying to draw down its forces here, saying that the surge has worked, and there's security in Baghdad. So this is why this is so key.

MARTIN: Now White House Press Secretary Dana Perino addressed the draw-down, and said the president wants to first make sure that recent security gains are not reversed.

Ms. DANA PERINO (White House Press Secretary, George W. Bush Administration): He has not been shy about saying that we have to make sure that the gains that have been achieved over this past year not be erased by acting too quickly in bringing troops home.

STEWART: As military commanders have noted, any reduction in troop levels is largely dependent upon Iraqi security forces, and today's battle for the control of Basra is a major test of their ability to maintain order.

MARTIN: In an indication of the importance of that battle, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is overseeing the operation personally. He took to Iraqi airwaves earlier today to give gunmen in Basra a three day deadline to hand over weapons and renounce violence.

STEWART: You can check updates on this story by going to npr.org. Now, let's get more of today's headlines.

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