ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
In Iraq, fighting continued today between government security forces and Shiite militias. The Iraqi military has imposed a curfew on Baghdad that continues through the weekend. And the State Department is telling U.S. embassy personnel not to leave reinforced structures or to use protective gear if they have to go outside.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has warned Shiite gunmen that they have to surrender their weapons or face an even harsher crackdown. In the speech broadcast on Iraqi state television today, Maliki promised to continue fighting armed Shiite groups in the southern city of Basra despite protests and mounting casualties.
NPR's Anne Garrels reports on the spreading violence.
ANNE GARRELS: Though Prime Minister Maliki insisted today the crackdown in Basra is against all criminal groups, Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters believe it's directed at them.
(Soundbite of protest)
GARRELS: Tens of thousands of young men, many carrying weapons, marched through Baghdad's Sadr City, the stronghold for anti-American cleric Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
(Soundbite of protest)
GARRELS: We will fight whoever attacks the Mahdi Army, they chanted. They demanded Maliki resign.
Suspected Shiite extremists hit the U.S.-protected Green Zone for the fourth day this week. The U.S. military reports rockets and mortars also rained down around the area, killing one civilian and wounding 14.
(Soundbite of siren)
GARRELS: Fire trucks and ambulances raced through the city to put out fires and collect the wounded. Because of the confusion, it's impossible to say for certain how many have been killed or injured but countrywide, numbers are now in the hundreds.
One American soldier was killed and another three injured when their patrols were hit by roadside bombs. Two U.S. bases in Baghdad were mortared again today. Four American soldiers were wounded there.
Striking at U.S. and Iraqi claims of success in recent months, militiamen kidnapped the Iraqi government spokesman for the U.S.-led surge. They then torched his house.
Fighting spread throughout Baghdad neighborhoods as more and more militiamen claiming to support Sadr appeared on the streets. In New Baghdad near Sadr City, witnesses say Sadr militiamen are now in complete control. Police have fled their posts. In west Baghdad, many police checkpoints also have been overrun.
Iraqi General Abdel Aziz Mohammed Jassim, head of military operations, told reporters today Iraqi security forces have the upper hand, accusing journalists of reporting rumors to the contrary. He denied a major pipeline had been attacked in Basra, but the Southern Oil Company subsequently confirmed their reports.
As the pipeline fire raged, a Basra resident described the thick smoke covering the city.
Ms. AHLAM ABDULKADER (Resident, Basra, Iraq): (Speaking in foreign language)
GARRELS: Ahlam Abdulkader said residents huddled in their houses with street fighting raging outside are in desperate need of food, medical care and clean water. She said she wants the government to establish order in Basra, but she said Sadr's militias are by no means the only problem. She says militias associated with the government have also been responsible for killings and corruption.
Sadrists view the government offensive as an attempt by Sadr Shiite rivals to weaken his movement before provincial elections planned for this year.
Sheik Mohammed al-Sa'dawi(ph), the head of Basra's tribal council, echoed these charges.
Sheik MOHAMMED AL-SA'DAWI (Basra's Tribal Council): (Through Translator) The only way to solve this is dialogue between everyone. There is no military solution.
GARRELS: Journalists receive messages allegedly from Sadr's office saying Muqtada al-Sadr had called on his militiamen to lay down their weapons. But Sadr's office later called these messages disinformation. And one of Sadr's commanders told NPR tonight, he has received orders to fight until Sadr's demands — an end government attacks and the release of detainees — are met.
The U.S. has called Sadr's declared cease-fire, a key reason for the drop in violence in recent months. And today, the U.S. military made it clear it's unwilling to say the cease-fire is over, despite escalating violence. A spokesman said the military still believes only rogue Shiite elements are responsible.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.
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