Baghdad under curfew as Iraqi forces crack down on militias

The Iraqi government has imposed a curfew in Baghdad following days of fierce fighting between security forces and Shia militias in southern Iraq and a barrage of rocket attacks into the U.S.-protected Green Zone.

Cleric calls for political solution to days of fighting

The Iraqi government imposed a curfew in Baghdad late Thursday amid fierce fighting between security forces and militias in the southern Shia heartland and a continued barrage of rocket attacks into the U.S.-protected Green Zone.

Mahdi Army fighters loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Thursday. ((Associated Press))

The government has ordered vehicles and pedestrians off the streets of the capital until Sunday morning in a bid to curb the violence, the Associated Press quoted a senior military official as saying.

The State Department instructed all personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad not to leave reinforced structures after an American citizen was killed Thursday by a rocket attack, according to a memo obtained by the AP.

The latest death brings the number of Americans killed by mortar and rocket fire inside the Green Zone this week to two, after another U.S. contractor died Monday from wounds sustained in a similar attack.

"Nobody's going outside unless they absolutely have to," Los Angeles Times reporter Tina Susman told CBC News from Baghdad late Thursday.

She said she had spoken to several people on Thursday inside the city's heavily fortified area, which houses American and British diplomats, as well as Iraqi politicians, contractors and others forced to grow accustomed to the wailing sirens warning of an imminent attack.

"When you've got upwards of 15, 16 rockets into the area each day, you can't be too careful," Susman said.

The surge in violence was sparked earlier this week by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordering a crackdown on Shia militias in the southern oil port city of Basra.

The move came hours after tens of thousands of Shias took to the streets of Baghdad's Shia neighbourhoods to protest the crackdown on the militias and demand the "new dictator" al-Maliki resign.

'No retreat,' says Iraqi PM

As many as 80 people have been reported killed in Basra since gun battles broke out this week between the Shia-dominated Iraqi security forces and Shia factions, including members of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Iraqis hold a banner of Sadr during a massive protest in Baghdad on Thursday. ((Hadi Mizban/Associated Press) )

The crackdown has sparked anger among Shias and raised fears that Sadr could lift the truce with U.S. forces the powerful cleric unilaterally declared last year.

Reuters reported Sadr calling for talks with the government to end the violence, which has threatened to upset several months of relative calm in the capital and across the country. 

"We ask everyone to adopt the political resolution and peaceful protest. Do not shed Iraqi blood," Sadr said in a statement read to Reuters by Hazem al-Araji, one of his senior aides in the city of Najaf.

But Al-Maliki, a Shia, said Thursday that Iraq had become a "nation of gangs, militias and outlaws" and he was undertaking a "historic mission" in Basra to restore "the law of the land."

"We have made up our minds to enter this battle, and we will continue until the end. No retreat," al-Maliki told Basra area tribal leaders in a speech broadcast countrywide on Iraqi state TV. 

His comments came a day after he issued a 72-hour deadline for militias in the city to surrender their arms and renounce violence.

Several explosions rang out across the city in Thursday's fighting. The BBC reported many Basra residents saying they are running out of food and water.

Bush hails Iraqi PM's 'bold' crackdown

Earlier in the day, U.S. President George W. Bush praised al-Maliki for cracking down on the militias.

U.S. President George W. Bush makes remarks on Iraq Thursday at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. ((Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press))

But Bush said the offensive builds on the security gains of the U.S. surge and "demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is protecting them.

"Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bold decision, and it was a bold decision to go after illegal groups in Basra, shows his leadership and his commitment to enforce the law in an even-handed manner," Bush told about 1,200 invited guests in Dayton, Ohio.

Bush also insisted Iraqi security forces were behind the offensive, although the Pentagon acknowledged on Wednesday that U.S. forces are providing air support.

"They're leading the operation," Bush said of the Iraqi forces.

The president also defended the progress made in Iraq as a result of the troop surge, saying the measures are "helping Iraqis reclaim security and restore political and economic life."

"The surge is doing what it is designed to do," Bush said.

Also Thursday, a bomb severely damaged a key Iraqi oil export pipeline about 12 kilometres south of the embattled city, triggering a massive fire and putting upward pressure on the price of oil, which closed above US$106 a barrel.

With files from the Associated Press