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 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 Maliki's Dawa Party, which like the other two is a Shiite group supported by Iran.
Maliki issued his latest ultimatum, apparently to 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 Sadr's demand that 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," 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.
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."
Sadrists and some analysts are portraying the offensive as a political move by the rival Islamic Supreme Council to liquidate Sadr's movement before provincial elections.
A law covering provincial elections went into effect last week after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney strong-armed the presidency council into allowing it to pass. While the Islamic Supreme Council is more powerful than Sadr is in much of the country, Sadr is much more popular among poor Shiites. Provincial elections could undercut the Supreme Council's influence in the south, and many see the government offensive as a move to thwart Sadr's political ambitions.
In Basra and in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City, hundreds of people took to the streets in anti-government protests, calling Maliki a "dictator" and condemning the United States and Abdul Aziz al Hakim, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council.
In Sadr City, the demonstrators carried a red coffin with Maliki's face on the side. A black X was marked over his face and "The New Dictator" was written under his visage. The protesters burned American flags with his face on them.
In Basra, the Mahdi Army retained control of its four main strongholds of al Hayaniyah, al Qibla, al Timimiyah and Khamsa Mil. Al Timimiyah is in the center of the city, and the three other areas are on the main road from Baghdad to Basra.
But the militia faced the possibility of a major setback.
"The situation is not good. We are facing dangerous odds," said Abu Mohammed, a Mahdi Army commander who insisted on using his nom de guerre. "We were anticipating a rise in the opposition movement, popular and political, to put pressure on the government to accept peaceful solutions to our issues."
Hayat al Basri said the suffering will be worthwhile if the operation rids Basra of militias. She's been unemployed for nearly a year because she refuses to cover her hair in the streets of Basra, as the Mahdi Army demands.
"This operation must go on until the very end, whatever the price may be, because our city Basra has become intolerable," she said. "It doesn't matter if we go hungry or need water for a while. The important thing is that we regain our city."
In Sadr City, Mohammed al Darraji returned home enraged. He said that four men lay dead from a U.S. airstrike, and the Iraqi army was shooting in the air.
"Besides those who fight the Iraqi troops, everybody is angry because the Mahdi Army imposed its own law and we don't want that," he said. " People now curse them in public. ...It's a good chance for Maliki to crush the Mahdi Army, and if he wants to succeed, he must continue to the end."
In Baghdad, the Mahdi Army battled across the capital, commandeering a police station in the Shiite area of Shoala in northwest Baghdad.
Gunmen kidnapped the civil spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, Tahseen al Shaikhli. They burst into his home, stole some 26 weapons, grabbed him from his home, then let his family go. They stockpiled the weapons on Shaikhli's official pickup truck and torched his home.
All over Baghdad, battles broke out between the militia and Iraqi security forces. In one case, a man and his son were killed, caught in the middle of the clashes in north Baghdad. The boy was 13.
The government imposed a curfew in the capital through dawn on Sunday, and the governor of Najaf announced a curfew beginning at 8 p.m. and lasting until further notice.
(McClatchy special correspondent Qassim Zein contributed from Najaf and Ali al Basri contributed from Basra. Laith Hammoudi contributed from Baghdad.)