Iraqi troops capture Shia militia stronghold

Massive bombardment by US air force and British artillery in Basra supports government offensive against Mehdi Army fighters
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Iraqi government troops said they captured a stronghold of fighters loyal to the anti-US Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra yesterday following a massive show of force by US warplanes and British artillery.

Explosions and gunfire could be heard at dawn, under the heaviest bombardment since the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, launched a crackdown on Mr Sadr's followers late last month in the southern city.

The commander of Iraqi forces in Basra, Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji, said his troops had seized the centre of the Hayaniya neighbourhood, one of the main strongholds of Mr Sadr's Mehdi Army. "We are chasing fugitives and arresting them," he said. "We expect within the next few hours that the operation will be concluded successfully."

After several hours, the fighting appeared to die down, but sporadic gunfire could still be heard.

Major Tom Holloway, the British Army's military spokesman, said the offensive had been launched with heavy bombardment "to give a demonstration of the firepower available if required". No information on casualties was available.

A Reuters reporter in Nassiriya, another southern provincial capital, said there were also clashes between government troops and Mehdi Army fighters in a nearby town and a curfew had been imposed.

Mr Maliki's crackdown against the Mehdi Army in Basra in late March initially failed to drive the militia from the streets and resulted in fighting in strongholds of Sadrist fighters throughout the south of the country and in Baghdad.

The Prime Minister, himself a Shia, has since threatened to ban Mr Sadr's mass movement from political life if the cleric does not disband the Mehdi Army. In response, Mr Sadr threatened formally to scrap a ceasefire he imposed on his militia last August.

In a statement released last night on his website, he urged the government to "take the path of peace and abandon violence against its people", before threatening: "If the government does not refrain and leash the militias that have penetrated it, we will announce an open war until liberation."

Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, also weighed in, criticising US strategy in Baghdad. "Lawbreakers must be held accountable ... but the insistence of the Americans to lay siege to millions of people in a specific area and then bombing them randomly from air and damaging property is not correct."

Meanwhile, overnight clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City district killed 14 people and injured at least 84.

The fighting came amid reports that Iraqi troops backed by US forces were trying to recapture a position in the district abandoned a day ago by government soldiers. Security forces in the area also have come under repeated attack by militants trying to prevent the construction of a concrete wall through the district. The wall – up to 3.6m (12ft) high – will divide the south of Sadr City from the north, where the Mehdi Army is concentrated. US commanders hope it will hamper the insurgents' ability to fire rockets and mortars at the Green Zone, the central Baghdad district that houses government offices and the US embassy.

The zone has been shelled regularly since the Iraqi military launched an operation against Shia militias in Basra on 25 March. That operation quickly stalled amid fierce resistance from the militants and mass desertions from the security forces.

The US military said yesterday that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol in Salahuddin province. While in the northern city of Mosul, and the north-western town of Kirkuk, at least five people died and 18 were hurt by separate roadside bombs.