BAGHDAD — With the United States providing air cover and embedded advisers, the Iraqi government on Wednesday expanded its offensive against Shiite Muslim militias from the port city of Basra to the capital of Baghdad — and many of the provinces in between.
The day saw street battles in Baghdad and Basra, mortar attacks by Shiite rebels against Baghdad's Green Zone, bombing by U.S. aircraft and encounters that left government tanks in flames. More than 97 people were reported killed and hundreds were wounded since the operation began early Tuesday.
In Baghdad, at least nine Iraqi civilians were killed and 42 were wounded in mortar attacks, police said. The Mahdi Army, loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, opened fire on civilians in downtown Baghdad and clashed with Iraqi security forces in Kadhemiya in north Baghdad.
In Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood, clashes between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi security forces supported by U.S. forces left at least 20 dead and 115 were injured. By early afternoon, people took to the streets in protest of the Iraqi government.
Mortar rounds crashed into the heavily fortified Green Zone for the third straight day, injuring three U.S. government employees, all U.S. citizens, said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo.
Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who's directing the operation from Basra, gave the armed groups 72 hours to give up their weapons and surrender without consequences, warning that they'd be treated as outlaws if they didn't.
But al Sadr demanded that Maliki leave Basra and send a parliamentary delegation to hold a dialogue. Maliki immediately rebuffed the demand.
Maliki appears to be taking a huge risk in confronting the volatile city, which is dominated by the Mahdi Army.
There were growing signs that Sadr's cease-fire, which he declared in August and renewed in February, was unraveling. The cease-fire is one of the principal reasons for the downturn in violence and U.S. troop deaths this year.
"I hope they will stay with the freeze, but I'm not sure currently if the Jaysh al Mahdi (Mahdi Army) is still freezing its activities," said Sadiq al Rikabi, Maliki's adviser.
There also were ominous new threats. The "truth brigade," a group within the Mahdi Army, threatened to strike oil refineries, power stations, the port, oil pipelines and government institutions within 24 hours if Maliki didn't stop targeting Sadrists, a Sadr official told McClatchy.
Although the Iraqi offensive's success remained unclear, the U.S. military and officials in Washington threw their support behind the operation and took partial credit for it. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the Iraqi operation was a "byproduct of the success" of the year-old U.S. troop surge. Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, called the operation a "sign of the increased maturation" of the Maliki government.
"What he (Maliki) has really done is take that matter into his hands," Hadley said.
The U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad also gave an upbeat assessment.
"Iraqi operations in Basra also reflect the growing ability of the Iraqi security forces, Iraqi decision-making and Iraqi leadership," said Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner. He said that the operation wasn't against the Mahdi Army, only against outlaws who didn't honor Sadr's freeze.
Rikabi similarly said that the Iraqi government isn't targeting any political group or party, only "outlaws, the gangs and the murderers."
The situation on the ground suggested otherwise.
The operation spread into other provinces as Iraqi security forces went after the Mahdi Army in Babil province, Kut and Diwaniyah, as well as the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City.
In Basra, a health directorate official said that at least 37 people were killed and 150 were injured. The city was sealed off from other provinces, leaving markets unable to restock their goods and residents worried about drinking water and food running low.
Hospitals remained largely crippled because medical personnel were unable to go to work. Families couldn't leave their homes, let alone bury their dead in the holy city of Najaf.
"The biggest problem for us is the absence of drinking water, and food is running out, in addition to the fear that controls our life," said Abbas Aboud, a resident of Basra.
In downtown Basra, a fire burned where mortars hit a flour factory, the Mahdi Army attacked a police-training center and Iraqi tanks rumbled through the streets. Residents reported seeing tanks burning in the streets as bursts of gunfire, artillery and explosions resonated through the air.
U.S. airstrikes were directed against targets in Mahdi Army-controlled neighborhoods in Hilla, south of Baghdad. Muthanna Ahmed, the Babil police spokesman, said the strikes killed and wounded some 60 people, while the U.S. military said four people that lead "special groups" of Shiite militants in the city were killed.
In Kut, clashes killed civilians, three from the same family, including a child. Seventeen were wounded, including a woman and a child. Six Iraqi soldiers and police were killed in the clashes, six others were wounded, and four Mahdi Army militants were killed, according to health officials in Wasit province.
In Diwaniyah, seven Iraqi soldiers and a policeman died in clashes with the Mahdi Army. Two Shiite militiamen were killed, provincial police said.
Anger was rising among Shiite residents in the Mahdi Army neighborhoods of Baghdad. For the third day, Shiite militias loyal to Sadr sealed off their neighborhoods, blocking roads with refrigerators, burning tires and garbage. Residents were forced to close shops and stay home from work and schools.
"We suffer the same as 2006," said Dhia Mohammed, a college student and resident of Amil, in west Baghdad. She hasn't attended classes for three days. "There was the sectarian war, and I suffered from that a lot. In 2007, there were the car bombs and IEDs (improvised explosives device) war, and this year the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi security forces armed clashes. ... I blame the Mahdi Army. They are divided among themselves, there is no plan and there is no course."
(McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Kadhim contributed from Baghdad. Special correspondent Ali al Basri contributed from Basra.)