Militant Fighting Spreads Across Southern Iraq

The Iraqi army assault on the country's most powerful Shiite militia continued Thursday.

In Iraq's oil-rich southern city of Basra, thousands of Iraqi security forces have been trying to dislodge the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is overseeing the offensive against al-Sadr's forces there. Reports from the scene say the operation is not going well. One indication of that is that al-Maliki has canceled plans to attend an Arab summit in Syria this weekend.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who is in Baghdad, tells Renee Montagne that Iraqi forces seem to be outmanned and outgunned in certain areas, and that there are reports of Iraqi police and army units taking off their uniforms and joining al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

"We're also hearing that Iraq's oil installations in Basra have been affected. There's been an attack on one of the pipelines, and the refinery may have shut down," Garcia-Navarro says, stressing that it's very hard to get accurate information.

Two of the area's biggest hospitals report that 262 people — militants and civilians — have been killed and more than 300 wounded, she says. Residents say water and electricity have been cut off. Shops are closed, food is scarce and people are having trouble getting medical care.

The situation in Baghdad, Garcia-Navarro says, also is "extremely tense."

"Mahdi Army members have planted roadside bombs in many of the main streets. They are heavily armed with new weapons and equipment, we are hearing. ... Masked Shiite militia members have been attacking police and army checkpoints in western Baghdad. ... Mahdi Army members have been going house to house, demanding that men of fighting age join them. So we're seeing an explosion across Shiite areas in the capital."

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