Friday, March 28, 2008

Iraq extends militiamen deadline


Iraq's government has extended by 10 days a deadline for Shia militiamen fighting troops in the southern city of Basra to hand over their weapons.

More than 130 people have been killed and 350 injured since a clampdown on militias began in Basra on Tuesday.

US-led forces joined the battle for the first time overnight, bombing Shia positions, the UK military said.

Iraq's parliament is to hold emergency talks on the crisis, which has also brought a three-day curfew in Baghdad.

A statement from Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's office read: "All those who have heavy and intermediate weapons are to deliver them to security sites and they will be rewarded financially. This will start from March 28 to April 8."

No reason was given for the deadline extension.

The BBC's Crispin Thorold in Baghdad says the statement is a marked change in tone and appears to be an effort to defuse the violence in Basra, Baghdad and other parts of the country.

UK military spokesman Maj Tom Holloway said: "A number of local sheikhs have handed in militia members and ammunition and explosives, and the prime minister is hoping to extend the window of opportunity to others."

Mr Maliki had earlier vowed he would continue the fight against the militias for as long as necessary.

The prime minister has personally overseen the operation in Basra, which involves some 30,000 troops and police fighting the Shia Mehdi Army, led by radical cleric Moqtada Sadr.

Mehdi Army fighters remain in control of some densely populated areas.

Maj Holloway said US warplanes had for the first time in the operation carried out bombing raids overnight in Basra, targeting "mortar teams" and "a concentration of militia troops".

Late on Thursday, Mr Sadr had called for a political solution to the crisis.

In a statement relayed by his aide Hazem al-Aaraji, he said he wanted "everyone to pursue political solutions and peaceful protests and a stop to the shedding of Iraqi blood".

However, aides to Mr Sadr on Friday told the BBC that no talks with the government were yet in prospect.

US President George W Bush praised Mr Maliki's decision to order the crackdown, saying "normalcy was returning to Iraq"...............

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