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Across Iraq, battles erupt with Mahdi Army

Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fought US, Iraqi forces in Baghdad and Basra on Tuesday.

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The Basra-based official said that fighting is now centered in Mahdi Army strongholds in the neighborhoods of Tamimiyah, Hayaniyah, and Five Miles, and that there was also fighting in the neighboring provinces of Nasiriyah and Maysan.

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A curfew has also been imposed in Nasiriyah and other southern cities, such as Samawa and Kut, the scene of clashes involving the Mahdi Army over the past two weeks.

One Basra resident reached by phone said he was holed up at his office at the local branch of the ministry of trade, and described the sound of explosions and gunfire as "terrifying."

Two Iraqi Army battalions and five battalions of the National Police's quick-reaction force were dispatched to Basra, where an entire Army division is already stationed.

"The lawlessness is going on under religious or political cover along with oil, weapons, and drug smuggling. These outlaws found support from inside government institutions either willingly or by coercion ... turning Basra into a place where no citizen can feel secure for his life and property," said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a statement read on state television, which reported that Mr. Maliki along with the ministers of defense and interior were all in Basra to oversee the operation.

The reaction from Sadr's camp was swift. At a press conference in the holy city of Najaf, three of the cleric's top lieutenants condemned the government offensive and accused Maliki, a Shiite, of carrying out a US agenda. They also threatened a nationwide campaign of protests and civil disobedience if US and Iraqi forces continued to fight the Mahdi Army.

Smith, the military spokesman, said the US would not stop this campaign if it remained peaceful.

One of the movement's leaders, Liwa Smaisim, described as "preposterous" US claims that it was only targeting splinter elements of the Mahdi Army.

Hazem al-Aaraji, another leader usually based in Baghdad, said the current fighting was a continuation of a campaign by the movement's Shiite rivals in the Iraqi government to finish it off – a drive it began last fall in southern Iraq.

Sadr's influence was felt throughout Baghdad Tuesday, highlighting the risk that the fight in Basra may spread to the capital, home to a large segment of his supporters. On Tuesday, witnesses reported that gun battles broke out in the capital's Sadr City district between the militia and rivals from the Badr Organization, which is part of Maliki's ruling Shiite coalition.

The offices of one of the branches of Maliki’s Dawa Party was torched in Sadr City, according to the US military.

On Monday evening, pickup trucks filled with chanting Mahdi militiamen, within sight of Iraqi forces, were forcing shopkeepers in many parts of Baghdad's west side to close in protest of US and Iraq Army raids.

On Tuesday, all shops in the Mahdi Army stronghold neighborhoods – Bayiaa, Iskan, Shuala, and Washash – were shuttered. Leaflets saying "No, no to America" were plastered on each storefront. Anti-American banners hung right next to Iraqi government checkpoints.

Several people interviewed in the Amel neighborhood said they were forced by militiamen to return home when they tried to go to work this morning. "This is anarchy," says Ali al-Yasseri.

Awadh al-Taiee in Baghdad and a Najaf-based Iraqi journalist contributed reporting.