Moqtada al-Sadr's powerful Shiite movement upped the ante Thursday in its battle with Iraqi government forces. Militiamen loyal to the young cleric refused to back down in their fight in the southern oil-rich city of Basra and his foot soldiers in Baghdad took to the streets in a show of force, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The clock continues to tick away on Mr. Maliki's 72-hour ultimatum for Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia to lay down its weapons in Basra or face all-out assault. At the moment, witnesses in Basra say there appears to be no sign of any letup in fighting between government forces and the Shiite gunmen, who are said to still control 75 percent of the city.
"We have made up our minds and we have waged this war and we will continue till the end. No retreat, no compromise, no accords," said Maliki during a meeting with local tribal leaders in Basra. He remains in the city to oversee the battle there that has killed at least 50 people so far.
The continuation of fighting marks a serious escalation in a long-simmering battle between Iraq's rival Shiite factions that pits Sadr, whose influence extends into key government ministries and spans across Baghdad and nine southern provinces, against factions allied to Maliki's Dawa Party such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its affiliate the Badr Organization.
The fight in Basra is also having global implications. After news broke that one of Iraq's main oil export pipelines from Basra exploded, cutting at least a third of the exports from the city that provides 80 percent of the government's revenue, oil prices jumped more than $1 a barrel, Reuters reported.
However, according to Jamal Hamed al-Fraih, spokesman for the South Oil Company, it was a pipeline feeding crude oil to one of the main refineries in the province that was struck. Mr. Fraih said that a fire that raged for hours Thursday has come under control but that now the main refinery of Shuaiba has come to a standstill because of a power outage.
"Oil exports are still flowing but they are less than a few days ago," he said adding that oil exports from Basra, Iraq's main outlet, had been averaging 1.5 million barrels a day before the start of fighting.
Fraih also said the company is bracing for the worst. He said all administrative offices, including the headquarters in the city, were closed with extra security forces mobilized to protect them. "Yes there is a great risk that company property maybe attacked or looted."
Elsewhere in Basra, one of Saddam Hussein's former regime palaces – occupied by British forces until September when they pulled out to an airbase on the outskirts of the city – now serves as one of the main bases of Iraqi government forces and was hit with heavy mortar fire.
The US-funded Arab television station Al Hurra reported that a contingent of US Marines was now in Basra's city center and involved mainly in sniper operations. This could not be immediately confirmed with the US military. But several residents reported that they saw snipers posted on roof tops especially in the neighborhood of Tamimyah.
The US military has so far insisted that only US advisers and so-called "transition teams" embedded with Iraqi troops are in Basra. Coalition aircraft are providing air cover and surveillance support.
Al Sharqiya TV, a private Iraqi station often critical of the Iraqi government, showed what it said were exclusive images of masked militiamen – some of them in military fatigues – parading in Humvees they had seized from Iraqi government forces in Basra. The words "Mahdi Army" and "Mahdi's Followers" were spray painted in black on the white-washed vehicles. There was also footage of what looked like the remains of burnt Iraqi Army vehicles. The militiamen chanted and danced, flashing victory signs.
Yahya al-Taiee, a Basra-based lawyer and member of the Sadr movement, said many Iraqi soldiers have surrendered themselves and their vehicles to the Mahdi Army. His claims could not be immediately verified.
"The fight will go on until the end. We will do whatever Sayyed [an honorific] Moqtada orders," Mr. Taiee said, as the sound of explosions echoed in Hay al-Hussein, one of the militia's Basra strongholds.
A rare interview with Sadr is scheduled to be broadcast on Al Jazeera Saturday. He has been out of public view since May of last year.
Basra residents contacted say they fear a prolonged battle. Many have been without water or electricity since Tuesday. In some areas, hospitals and medical care was unavailable. Food was also running out.
"It's all a grab for oil and power. They couldn't care less about what happens to people," grumbled a man interviewed in the Basra neighborhood of Junaina. He gave his name as Abu Hussein.
Violence in Basra has spread to parts of the capital and other towns and cities between Baghdad and the southern oil city. Since Wednesday, at least 60 people have been killed in violence in Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad.
The Associated Press cited police officials as saying that 40 gunmen had been killed and 75 others wounded in clashes in Kut, southeast of Baghdad.
In Baghdad itself, fighting involving US and Iraqi forces continued for a second day in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army militia's stronghold, with at least 40 people reported killed. Gunmen kidnapped Tahseen al-Shaikhly, an Iraqi civilian spokesman for Baghdad security operations, after killing three of his bodyguards and torching his house in the neighborhood of Ameen, a Mahdi Army stronghold in southeastern Baghdad.
Salvos of rockets and mortars, mostly originating from Sadr City, also continued to slam into the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the US Embassy and the Iraqi government.
In the Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad, the location of a revered Shiite shrine, thousands of Sadr supporters marched through the streets as police stood back, apparently concerned about a violent response. Small, angry mobs broke away from the main demonstration and burned photos of Maliki against an image of a US flag.
"After Saddam's infidel regime collapsed ... many parties pretending to have been in the opposition and to [be speaking] in the name of the oppressed climbed to the top on our shoulders. After they have achieved their goals they became mere slaves and puppets in the hands of the occupier," Mazen al-Saadi, one of the turbaned clerics leading the march, told the crowds. "We call for the ouster of Maliki and his government."
"No, no to America," screamed the crowd.