BAGHDAD - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged 'no retreat' Thursday in the fight against Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra, as thousands of protesters demanded he resign over the crackdown and extremists fired rockets into the U.S.-protected Green Zone.
Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr called Thursday for a political solution to the burgeoning crisis and an end to the 'shedding of Iraqi blood.' But the statement, released by a close aide, stopped short of ordering his Mahdi Army militia to halt attacks on the Green Zone or stop fighting in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
In a sign of the deteriorating security, gunmen in Baghdad seized a high-profile government spokesman from his home in a Shiite neighborhood, killing three of his bodyguards and torching his house. In a bid to curb the violence, Iraq's military ordered vehicles and pedestrians off the streets of the capital until Sunday morning.
As Americans and Iraqis scrambled to cope with a newly violent Iraq, the State Department ordered all personnel at the U.S. Embassy not to leave reinforced structures because of continued incoming rocket or mortar fire from suspected Shiite extremists angry over the Basra crackdown.
The campaign to rid Basra of lawless gangs and Shiite militias - some believed tied to nearby Iran - is a major test for al-Maliki, a Shiite, and for the Iraqi military. The ability of Iraqi leaders and security forces to control situations like this one is key to U.S. hopes of withdrawing its forces from the country.
The prime minister put his credibility on the line by flying down to Basra and issuing a weekend deadline for the surrender of Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to al-Sadr. But the militiamen were still controlling Basra's streets Thursday, and the security operation has triggered a violent response among al-Sadr's followers in Baghdad and cities throughout the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq.
In the Baghdad neighborhood of Kazimiyah, thousands of al-Sadr's followers denounced al-Maliki as a 'new dictator' as they carried a coffin bearing a crossed-out picture of the U.S.-backed prime minister. Thousands more also rallied in Sadr City, Baghdad's main Shiite district.
'We call on our brothers in the Iraqi army and the brave national police not to be tools of death in the hands of the new dictatorship,' a Sadrist member of parliament, Falah Shanshal, said.
However, al-Maliki showed no sign of wavering.
'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 nationwide on Iraqi state TV.
Al-Maliki said 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.'
But the Sadrists have been angry over recent raids and detentions, saying U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken advantage of their 7-month-old cease-fire to crack down on the movement.