Baghdad As gun battles raged in the southern port city of Basra, parts of Baghdad and neighboring provinces, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in effect declared war on Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, saying he'd fight the militia "to the end" and never negotiate.
In Dayton, Ohio, on Thursday, President Bush praised al-Maliki's "bold decision" to confront Shiite militias and said it was evidence that the Iraqi military is increasingly confident and able to act on its own. In fact, the U.S. military is providing air cover, embedded advisers and ground reinforcements for the Iraqi offensive.
Three days into a U.S.-backed government offensive, however, the Mahdi Army retained control of key neighborhoods of the southern port city of Basra and was able to prevent Iraqi soldiers and police from penetrating its strongholds.
At least 189 people have been killed in the Basra offensive, neighboring provinces and Baghdad since early Tuesday morning, government health and security officials reported. Of these, 97 were killed and 300 were injured in Basra, health officials said.
Townspeople in Basra were growing restless on the third day of the siege.
"I've never seen such suffering," said Abu Karrar, a Basra resident. "There is no water and no electricity. My son has diabetes. His medicine has run out, and I can't reach any hospital or medical center."
Clashes broke out in at least 10 Baghdad neighborhoods, and mortar rounds continued to rain down on the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the Iraqi and U.S. governments are housed. Mortar rounds struck the Interior Ministry compound, killing at least one person. In Basra, militants struck an oil pipeline.
The Mahdi Army also launched attacks in the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, while fighting in Kut, Diwaniyah and Hilla. Across the south and in Baghdad, Mahdi Army militants torched offices of its rival Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and al-Maliki's Dawa Party, which like the other two is a Shiite group supported by Iran.
Al-Maliki issued his latest ultimatum, apparently to al-Sadr, during a meeting with tribal sheiks in Basra, where he's been directing the operation since he launched it Tuesday. In declaring that he'd fight the Mahdi Army until "the end," the prime minister dismissed al-Sadr's demand that al-Maliki leave Basra and send a parliamentary delegation to resolve the conflict.
"We were surprised that a political entity has (used) all its power to disable the work of the government," al-Maliki said. "This assured us that the majority of what was going on in this province is a result of the evil actions that this group was conducting."
The government "does not negotiate with a gang; the government does not sign memorandums of understanding with outlaws," he said.
Al-Maliki demanded that the Sadrists "drop their weapons, turn themselves into police stations and sign a vow to say they will not interfere again and return to their homes." Otherwise, he warned, "the battle will continue to the end."