BAGHDAD — Four days into a major government offensive in Basra, Iraqi government forces have been unable to dislodge Shiite Muslim militias from their strongholds in the southern port city, prompting Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to back off his ultimatum to disarm by Friday.
As Maliki softened his demand, offering cash to anyone who turns in medium to heavy weapons in the next 10 days, U.S. military involvement intensified with U.S. aircraft striking two targets in Basra, according to a British military spokesman.
The U.S. military said a Navy fixed wing aircraft had struck a mortar crew, killing three.
U.S. ground forces clashed with militants in New Baghdad, Kadhemiya and Sadr City, all Mahdi Army militia strongholds in the Iraqi capital. Airstrikes also were conducted in Kadhemiya and Sadr City, as well as in Adhamiyah, a mostly Sunni neighborhood, residents said.
The U.S. military said it conducted airstrikes with Hellfire missiles against rocket storage facilities and against militants who were on rooftops attempting to fire on Stryker armored vehicles.
Mortar rounds, apparently fired by militiamen from Sadr City, continued to rain down on the heavily fortified Green Zone, where U.S. and Iraqi government headquarters are housed.
At least 231 people, including some gunmen and security officers, have been killed and hundreds injured so far in the clashes in Basra, neighboring provinces and Baghdad.
In Washington, President Bush praised Maliki's courage in attempting to quash "criminal elements" in the Shiite militias, and he declared the offensive to be a "defining moment in the history of a free Iraq."
But some U.S. military officials privately worried that the Iraqi government had underestimated the resolve of firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias. The Iraqi government "may have underestimated how difficult this (launching an offensive against rogue elements in Basra) can be," said a senior U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The U.S. military in Baghdad reported an uptick in violence beyond the areas of heavy combat. "It's something that has spilled over from Basra," said Lt. Col. Steven Stover, the U.S. military spokesman for Baghdad operations. "We're not so sure that the (Mahdi Army operations) freeze is lifted. There's not been a public announcement. We're kind of hopeful that these are still rogue elements that are not adhering to it. We're also not naive."
A U.S. military official in Baghdad said the United States had little to no involvement in planning the Basra operation, which began some 10 days after Vice President Dick Cheney met with Maliki in Baghdad.
"The operations are Iraqi-conceived, Iraqi-planned and Iraqi-led," said the official, who said he wasn't authorized to be quoted by name. "Coalition forces were not involved in their planning or decision to go, but are providing advisers, logistics and air weapons teams. Additional quick reaction forces are on standby if needed."
The fighting receded somewhat in Basra, but there was no sign of the Mahdi Army being forced from its strongholds.
Casualties continued to rise, however.
The death toll in Basra rose to 120, with more than 300 injured by Thursday afternoon, health officials said. Iraqi police reported that one airstrike in Sadr City killed at least 12 and injured 60. The U.S. military couldn't confirm this death toll. Another 78 people had been killed since Tuesday, the Sadr office in Sadr City said.
The militia captured two patrol cars from the police in Baghdad, and Iraqi television showed a video of Mahdi Army militiamen dancing on top of an Iraqi Humvee in Basra. The Humvee had been spray painted with the words the "Army of the Imam," referring to the Mahdi Army. Late Thursday, Mahdi fighters shot down an Iraqi army helicopter in northern Basra, eyewitnesses said.
"We beat the security forces in all the neighborhoods," said Thair Sabeeh Hameed, a Mahdi Army commander. "They control only the police command post and the police training center. We stand firm, and we are ready."
Politically, Maliki seems to have taken an enormous risk by attacking Shiite militias in oil-rich Basra. Maliki remained at the presidential palace in Basra directing the offensive, and he continued to reject Sadr's demands to leave the city.
"The prime minister is not getting direction from people outside of the country," said Sadiq al Rikabi, a senior adviser to Maliki, referring to Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran studying religion. "The prime minister is the person who decides his responsibility and where to go. "
But Sadrists were furious at an operation they said was attempting to destroy their movement prior to provincial elections in the south. A provincial powers law passed the presidency council just days before the operation in Basra began.
A key element of the Iraqi security forces was the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is the chief rival to the Sadrists among Shiites in southern Iraq. In the view of many Iraqis, the battle in the south is more a struggle between Badr and the Mahdi Army than the government against outlaws.
But a U.S. official said that theory was simplistic.
"The Sadrists have complained for a long time that the Maliki government has been targeting them and using the cease-fire to arrest Sadrists," said the official, who couldn't speak for attribution due to the sensitivity of the subject. "The nuanced reality is that the cease-fire implementation was never 100 percent."
Residents in downtown Basra said security forces finally entered the Jumhuriyah neighborhood as militias moved to al Hayaniyah, also known as al Hussein, a populous Shiite slum controlled by the Mahdi Army.
In Timimiyah, a Mahdi Army stronghold in the center of the city, Iraqi security forces told residents to evacuate on loudspeakers.
People still worried about running out of food, water and medicine in the port city. Prices of food was soaring, and medicine was hard to come by.
A doctor at the Sadr hospital in Basra said supplies were running out.
"There is no resupply," Duraid al Basri said. "Many doctors can't reach the hospitals, and the wounded are dying in their homes."
In Baghdad, the U.S. military said it had come under multiple attacks from militants over the past two days in Mahdi Army-dominated areas on the east bank of the Tigris river. Militants tried to overrun a combat outpost in New Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are housed with mortar fire, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Air weapons teams were called in to back up Iraqi forces, and dismounted patrols came under heavy attack from militants. In Kadhemiya, U.S. troops were fired on at a checkpoint, and helicopters were deployed and killed three militants. Within 30 minutes, insurgents mounted a heavier attack, and airstrikes killed 10 more militants, the U.S. military said.
(McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi contributed from Baghdad, Ali al Basri contributed from Basra and Qassim Zein from Najaf. Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Washington.)