Iraqi government vows to demilitarize Basra

(dpa) - The Iraqi government vowed Monday to demilitarize Basra as relative calm was returning to the southern city, an interior ministry spokesman said, a day after Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to stop fighting government troops.

"Security forces will carry out orders of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to take away all weapons in Basra by the April 8 deadline," interior ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abdel-Karim Khalaf told the Voices of Iraq (VOI) news agency.

Al-Maliki, who launched a major military offensive in Basra Tuesday, gave armed groups in the Shiite-dominated city a deadline to surrender their weapons and renounce violence.

"Since the launch of the operation in Basra, 210 gunmen were killed, 42 of them dangerous criminals, 600 wounded and 155 arrested," Khalaf said.

Large quantities of weapons and military equipment were seized, and a number of car bombs and 80 explosive devices detonated, Khalaf said.

The operation does not target any political groups but outlaws and gangs involved in drug trafficking, fuel smuggling and the killing of academics, doctors and professionals, the official said.

Al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia to stop fighting government forces and urged them to cooperate to stop "Iraqi bloodshed" and "achieve security."

The cleric, believed to be staying in Iran, called on the government to apply the general amnesty law, end random raids targeting his loyalists and release detainees.

The government welcomed the move but said the crackdown on "lawbreakers" would continue.

Shops and markets were opening and vehicles could be seen amid a big troop deployment in the oil-rich city.

Estimates of the death toll since the outbreak of violence vary. As many as 250 people died and over 500 were injured in Basra, according to medical sources.

Meanwhile rockets fell on Baghdad's fortified Green Zone Monday, witnesses reported.

A succession of rockets fell on the Green Zone in central Baghdad, witnesses told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Reports on casualties were not immediately available.

The fortified area houses the US embassy and other diplomatic missions, as well as Iraq's cabinet, parliament and several ministries.

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