RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Iraq's authorities have ordered life in Baghdad to come to a halt. Amid the worst violence in months, they've imposed a round-the-clock curfew. Nobody is supposed to be seen on the streets until Sunday morning.
Inside government offices in Baghdad, Iraq's officials are struggling to find a way to make Shiite militants obey their orders. And NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is covering the story.
And just very quickly, are Baghdad residents obeying the order to stay inside -this curfew?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, for the time being things seem quieter here in Baghdad. We drove around this morning in spite of the curfew and noticed that there were people walking on the streets but virtually no cars. Some restaurants were open but there weren't many customers.
I mean, one interesting thing to note is that these police checkpoints we generally see outside the Green Zone where we live are not being manned by police. Instead, the army members are there. And we had reports yesterday of police defecting en masse and taking off their uniforms and either leaving their posts or joining Mahdi forces. And certainly that might be a reason why the police are not out today.
MONTAGNE: This also is the weekend that Shiite militants were supposed to hand in their guns. That was demanded by Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He has just extended that deadline. Tell us about that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, basically they had 72 hours to turn over their guns, and that would've been up tonight. And it was actually this funnel point that we were all working towards. We figured that was when the big blow-up was going to come. And then Maliki announced this morning that he's going to extend that deadline until April 8th and has said he'll trade money for weapons.
I mean, this is a big deal, because it's going to be interpreted as a sign of weakness on his part. I mean, he set a deadline and then he caved. And what we're hearing is that the Iraqi security forces in Basra are in disarray and members of the army, and as I said before, the police are defecting to the other side. And Maliki's got himself into a bit of a predicament here that's going to be very difficult to extract himself from.
Also interestingly, yesterday he said he would fight this to the end. And now his office is murmuring about negotiations and talks.
MONTAGNE: Of course it all started with Maliki taking on the militias, in particular the militia of a very powerful Shiite cleric.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. I mean, technically what he's taking on - and this is what the American line has been, too - is they're taking on rogue elements of that army, because technically there's a cease-fire between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. and Iraqi forces. So what they're saying here is that the fighting is just among these rogue elements who were trained in Iran and aren't listening to Moqtada al-Sadr.
You know, in Basra there's fighting this morning and we hear there's very little army presence there except for on the main streets. And we're hearing that Mahdi Army members - rogue or not, unclear - are building bunkers to fortify their positions inside the city.
There's been some talk of a five day truce there so food and water can get in, but it's unclear whether that's going to happen.
MONTAGNE: So it seems like this fighting - and this would be between the government forces and at least one big militia and possibly others - could go on for some time.
TEMPLE-RASTON: It's very unclear what's going to happen now. I mean, certainly it seems that the Iraqi forces have been outmaneuvered and possibly outgunned. There has been footage on the television, on Iraqi television that's showing Mahdi fighters actually using a Humvee - an American Humvee that was probably taken from the Iraqi security forces. They've painted it white and they've put Iraqi and Arabic slogans on there and big pictures of Moqtada al-Sadr. I mean, that says something about the tenor of things here.
MONTAGNE: Dina, thanks very much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston speaking to us from Baghdad.