Iraqi Forces, Sadrists Clash in Baghdad, Basra

Iraqi forces and militia loyal to Shiite cleric battle overnight and on Saturday in Baghdad's Sadr City area. In the southern city of Basra, Iraqi forces pushed into a Sadrist stronghold.

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In Iraq, clashes continued overnight and today in Baghdad's Sadr City area and in the southern city of Basra between Iraqi forces and militia loyal to the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

From Baghdad, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Iraqi forces pushed into a Sadrist stronghold just outside Basra today. Iraqi commander Lieutenant General Mohan al-Furaiji told Reuters his soldiers have now taken control of Hayaniya, a district in southwest Basra.

The Iraqi effort was supported by U.S. fighter jets and British artillery, which pounded open fields in the area as a show of force. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's soldiers late last month launched a botched offensive against Sadr's militia in Basra, an operation U.S. officials criticized as rushed and poorly executed. It ended with a truce brokered with help from Iranian officials, underscoring the strong Iranian influence in contemporary Iraq.

Reached today by cell phone in the holy city of Najaf, Sadr spokesman Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi called on the Iraqi government to honor its agreement. He said ongoing attacks in Basra and Sadr City risked a total breakdown of the cease-fire and an escalation of Shiite-on-Shiite violence.

Sheikh SALAH al-OBEIDI (Spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr): We want everything to calm down, to go calming down, but opportunity of the government as we think wants now to bring us to another kind of clash with the Iraqi forces, to give them the opportunity to make our rejection to what has happened within the Iraqi-American agreement.

WESTERVELT: Sheikh Obeidi said Iraqi government orders for Sadrists to evacuate a headquarters building in Basra or face expulsion and efforts yesterday to block Sadrists from attending Friday prayers were only inflaming tensions. Obeidi said he's waiting on orders directly from Moqtada al-Sadr on how to respond.

Meantime, in Sadr City, hospital officials said at least 12 Iraqis were killed in overnight fighting. This week, at least two companies of Iraqi soldiers abandoned their frontline positions in the Shiite slum, leaving Iraqi commandos and American soldiers scrambling to fill the gaps.

The U.S. is now trying to erect giant, concrete blast walls along al-Qud(ph) Street, a main roadway in southern Sadr City.

Captain LOGAN VEATH (U.S. Army): Right now, at this point in time, this wall is necessary.

WESTERVELT: U.S. Captain Logan Veath says the wall is aimed at stopping fighters from infiltrating southward to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces or launch rockets.

Capt. VEATH: What we want to do is help the local citizens here have a safe, secured environment and carry on with their lives and not have to deal with insurgent groups coming in, putting rocket systems up and firing onto the Green Zone.

WESTERVELT: The aim, he says, is to secure the southern area, called Jamilla(ph), so intensive rebuilding efforts will eventually make the area a kind of model Sadr City. But clashes continue, and so far the Iraqi government has done nothing to launch rebuilding, and basic services remain dysfunctional.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.

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