BAGHDAD - After failing to break the resistance of Shiite militias in the five-day siege of oil rich Basra, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki sent a top general to hold talks with his Shiite rival, Muqtada al Sadr, Saturday night only to be rebuffed by the firebrand cleric, an Iraqi official close to the negotiations said.
Maliki denounced Shia militants in Basra as the equivalent of Al Qaida, and Sadr told his supporters not to hand over their arms to a puppet state of the United States.
The diplomatic initiative and the harsh rebuff further eroded expectations for a successful outcome to the offensive, which Maliki is personally directing from the presidential palace in the southern port city. It was not the only sign of problems.
Maliki issued orders Friday to enlist volunteers for the battle against the Shiite militias, and his Dawa party sought to enlist fighters. The U.S. military raised its profile in Basra still further, providing protection for installations including the palace where Maliki is housed, Iraqi Interior Ministry officials said.
There were more U.S. air strikes in the Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City, and local officials said U.S. forces joined Iraqi security forces in clashes against Sadrists lasting hours south of Hilla, which lies south of Baghdad. Meanwhile, Sadr's Mahdi Army militia went door to door in Sadr City with a list of those employed by government security services, demanding that they not report to their jobs, local residents said.
The circumstances in which the negotiations with Sadr took place suggested the government is no longer able to dictate the terms of an agreement with Sadr but now must seek a deal. General Hussein al Assadi, a Baghdad-based commander, traveled to Najaf to call on the head of Sadr's political bureau there, Lewaa Smaisam. From his office, the two men telephoned Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, where he is studying religion. But they could not reach agreement, an official close to the negotiations said. He would not give his name due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Shortly after the talks broke down, the Iraqi government extended its curfew in Baghdad indefinitely. Earlier Saturday, Sadr directed his followers not to lay down their weapons, a direct snub of Maliki's offer to militias Friday to pay for arms if they would hand them over within 10 days.
The U.S. military intensified its air strikes in Basra, targeting a truck carrying of gunmen and a private home, killing eight and injuring seven, including two passing civilians, in the Mahdi Army stronghold of al Hayaniyah. Later, U.S. aircraft struck twice more, in one case destroying a Shiite mosque with a U.S. missile. The U.S. military confirmed that 17 people were killed and 22 were injured in air strikes in the city with AC130 gunships and other fixed winged aircraft.
"We are aware of reports of incidents in the Basra area resulting in civilian casualties," said Maj. Tom Holloway, spokesman for coalition forces in southeast Iraq. "We are investigating the reports and do not have any further details at this time."
U.S. aircraft also fired munitions in Sadr City, New Baghdad and Shoala, the U.S. military said. In Shoala, in the north of the capital, an air strike killed five. Iraqi state television began describing the dead as "martyrs." The U.S. military confirmed the strikes and said an attack helicopter used a machine gun to kill a man setting up a mortar tube on a rooftop in Shoala.
"We know the enemy was killed," an emailed response from the U.S. military said. "We are not aware of any other casualties."
Maliki seemed exasperated as he said in a televised statement that the militants had tried his and the nation's patience. "We want a state of law not a state rules by a party or a man but by a constitution," he said. He did not mention Sadr by name but seemed to have him in mind as he spoke. "If they are talking about political disputes, why do they sabotage electricity and fuel stations? We have no answer but they are gangs, hired guns to sabotage this country."
Maliki again promised not to leave Basra until he completed the job, and reiterated his demand that armed militia members turn over their weapons to the state, withdraw and sign a vow to never violate the law again.
"This is the decisive battle," he said as his government ordered new security precautions - banning pedestrians from the street and prohibiting hospitals across the country from treating wounded gunmen, officials in the Ministry of Interior said.
By contrast, Sadr seemed to be riding high. Making his first public appearance since May, Sadr insisted on Al Jazeera Arabic service that he had nearly total control of his militia, whose goal, he said, remained to "liberate" Iraq from the U.S. occupation. Although the interview was taped before the Basra battle broke out, he said instability in the south, specifically in Kut and Basra, was caused by Shiite rivals to delay provincial elections.
"There are parties and entities that will forbid [provincial elections] as much as they can because there interests are not to have municipal councils and provincial council elections," he said, referring to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which risks losing its monopoly on power in the south to the Sadr party if elections are held. "For this reason they caused a lot of problems in the south."
In Basra families used the relatively calm day to deliver their dead to the morgue. Morgue officials said they received 39 more bodies.
In Baghdad, kidnappers of the civilian spokesman for the Baghdad security plan released a recording in which he pleaded with the government to make concessions.
"I am being treated nicely," Tahseen al Sheikhli, who was kidnapped by militants earlier this week, said. "But this is dependent on the release and treatment of wounded people and stopping this military operation against the Sadrist trend in all governorates...This call isn't only from me, but from all who are in custody including officers who are detained with me."
The recording ended with him begging: "Please, please to the Iraqi government. Make a decision as our situation depends on It.".
In Najaf the Mahdi Army prepared to bury their dead, digging about 100 graves in the Valley of Peace, the largest Muslim cemetery in the world, for their fallen comrades. Twenty-six of the graves were already filled with the bodies of fallen fighters.
"Death is inevitable," said Mohammed Nasir, 26 as he dug. "It's a sad feeling to dig graves for my brothers, a day will come when my brothers will dig my grave."
McClatchy Special Correspondents Qassim Zein contributed from Najaf, Ali al Basri from Basra and Mohammed al Dulaimy from Baghdad.