U.S. Launches Airstrikes as Basra Fighting Continues

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The southern Iraqi city of Basra came under fire from U.S. warplanes on Saturday as Iraqi security forces struggle in their battle against militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The airstrikes, which killed at least eight civilians, were the second in as many days in Basra.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

In Iraq, the southern city of Basra came under fire from U.S. warplanes today. At least eight civilians were killed in the air strikes - the second in as many days in Basra, where the Iraqi government continues its efforts to cripple Shiite militias. The American support has come as Iraqi security forces are clearly struggling in the battle against militiamen loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is in Baghdad, where authorities have imposed a 24-hour curfew since Thursday.

Dina, President Bush has called this a defining moment for Iraq. Is it?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's a defining moment not only for Iraq but for the United States in a lot of ways, too. I mean, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has a lot at stake. This is the first Iraq-led military operation like this. It's become a litmus test of how and if the Iraqis can handle their own security, and just as an indication of how this is going, earlier this week, Maliki gave gunmen 72 hours to lay down their arms and warned that those who didn't do so would face the full brunt of the law.

And then as the deadline drew near, he balked and extended it until April 8, which coincidentally is the day General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander for armed forces in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker go to Capitol Hill to provide their assessment of the war. So for the Americans, this is a test of everything they've done up until now.

STAMBERG: And meantime, there you are in Baghdad, 24-hour curfew. What are things like now?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Things are pretty tense, I have to say. We're about halfway through that curfew in the capital, and we're actually hearing that it's going to be extended through much of next week as well, and it's a very strict curfew. No people are allowed on the streets. No cars are permitted outside, either, and that naturally frays the nerves of people when they can't go out.

We're hearing there are fake police checkpoints out there, and it's very, very dangerous to go out. You know, most of the fighting actually has been in Sadr City, which is this huge slum area in eastern Baghdad, which is a Mahdi army stronghold, and we're hearing reports of street-to-street and house-to-house fighting, and then the Green Zone is getting hit, too.

The Green Zone is where the U.S. embassy and the Iraqi government are located, and they've been under heavy mortar attacks. You know, we heard 13 mortars or rockets fly over where we're living on the way to the Green Zone this morning, just this morning, and we know that four of them actually hit inside the heavily fortified compound.

STAMBERG: Well, all of this latest business started five days ago in Basra, that's the oil port, and the Iraqi prime minister personally launched this offensive there. Tell what is happening there. What do you know about it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: We're hearing that British and American forces there are stepping up their involvement. You know, to now, they've been very careful to say this is an Iraqi-led offensive, but now British bombers are repeatedly hitting the city, there's fighting continuing on the streets, and while there's a curfew there, they are allowing people to go out during the day to get supplies, but very few are taking advantage of it just because it's so dangerous.

Military sources told NPR privately that the Iraqis didn't fare well in this first round in Basra, and coalitions had hoped to stay out of it, but clearly, the Iraqis haven't been able to handle it. So we're going to be seeing over the next sort of days and maybe weeks a slow building of support from the coalition.

STAMBERG: U.S. officials have been saying the Iraqi security forces there are fighting rogue elements of the Mahdi army. What does that mean?

TEMPLE-RASTON: All indications actually are that these battles are against regular Mahdi army forces. U.S. officials are having to say that they're rogue elements because if they were to admit otherwise, they'd be declaring that a ceasefire between Iraqi forces and the U.S. is over.

Moqtada al-Sadr renewed that ceasefire about a month ago, and it's been credited, along with the surge, for bringing a lot of the violence down in Iraq. So that's why everyone is on tenterhooks about this.

STAMBERG: Thank you very much, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in Baghdad.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

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