Iraq's premier: Special forces to root out militias
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Thursday special forces were deployed in Sadr City in east Baghdad to root out "gangs", in reference to militia from the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, reported the dpa.
Speaking at a press conference in Baghdad, al-Maliki confirmed terms set by his government to end military operations jointly launched with US troops in Sadr City since the end of March.
"All weapons should only be in the hands of the government," the premier said in reference to his main condition for halting the offensive.
"We are not besieging Sadr City but there is a blockade on weapons," al-Maliki said.
The Iraqi government had launched a crackdown against Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra on March 25 but the fighting quickly spread to Sadr City and other Shiite-dominated cities in the south.
The government set conditions for ending the crackdown, including militias handing in their weapons and handing over fighters wanted by the authorities.
But al-Sadr rejected the conditions and told his loyalists to continue their "resistance" to the US "occupation" of Iraq and not to fight Iraqis.
Fighting in Sadr City - a slum inhabited by about 2.5 million people - has been raging over the last 24 hours with the casualties reaching 35 and the number of wounded 129 people, according to medical sources cited by the Voices of Iraq news agency.
Women and children were among those killed after four houses were shelled, the unnamed medical sources said.
Earlier, Fatah al-Sheikh, a Sadrist leader, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa that at least 500 people have been killed and 2,000 wounded in the ongoing fighting in Sadr City since March 25. Most of the dead were women and children.
The situation in in Sadr City was "dramatic," he said.