BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister warned gunmen in the oil port of Basra to surrender their weapons by Friday or face harsher measures, as clashes between security forces and Shiite militia fighters spread throughout the south and in Baghdad. Despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ultimatum Wednesday, government troops in Basra were having trouble making inroads into neighborhoods that the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has controlled for years. Residents spoke of militiamen using mortar shells, sniper fire, roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades to fight off security forces.
A Pentagon official said reports from the Basra area indicate that militiamen had overrun a number of police stations and that it was unclear how well the Iraqi security forces were performing overall. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, remained in Basra to supervise a crackdown against the spiraling violence between militia factions vying for control of the center of Iraq’s vast oil industry, located near the Iranian border. The events threatened to unravel a Mahdi Army cease-fire and spark a dramatic escalation in violence after a months long period of relative calm.
Street battles that broke out Tuesday in Basra and Baghdad’s main Shiite district of Sadr City spread to several other neighborhoods and southern cities, leaving nearly 140 dead, including civilians, Iraqi security forces and militants. That two-day figure was a rough estimate provided by police and hospital officials who could not give a more specific breakdown. MORE
FINANCIAL TIMES: On his campaign bus recently, John McCain admitted that to win the White House he must convince voters that the US was succeeding in Iraq. Failing that, “then I lose. I lose”, he said. “Clearly I am tied to it to a large degree.” Several weeks later, and amid evidence that Iraq might be undergoing its first serious rise in violence since the 30,000 US troop “surge” took effect last summer, Mr McCain has, if anything, strengthened that linkage.