Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Iraq PM gives 72 hour deadline to Shiite fighters

BAGHDAD (AFP) — Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gave Shiite militiamen a 72 hour deadline to lay down their arms as they battled Iraqi and US troops for a second day Wednesday in Baghdad and the second city of Basra.

Fighting broke out at dawn in strongholds of the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr after raging through the previous day.

Police have confirmed seven people killed in Basra while unconfirmed sources put the death toll at 40 and the number of wounded at 200. The death toll of 40 was not independently confirmed.

At least 20 people died in the clashes in the militia's Baghdad bastion of Sadr City, Iraqi security officials said.

"Those killed and wounded included men, women and children. The wounded have been admitted to five different hospitals in and around Sadr City," an official from the interior ministry said.

Sporadic clashes with Iraqi and US troops continued in Sadr City during the day, witnesses said.

Residents of the sprawling impoverished neighbourhood said those involved in the fighting were Mahdi Army members but the US military said it was targeting "rogue terrorist and criminal elements".

The Iraqi prime minister, who is personally overseeing operations in Basra, gave the militia a 72-hour deadline to lay down its weapons in the city.

"We are not going to chase those who hand over their weapons within 72 hours," said Maliki, adding that the security forces were continuing with their operations and moving in to arrest specific people for whom they have warrants of arrest.

"If they do not surrender their arms, the law will follow its course," the Basra Operational Command quoted the premier as saying........

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