Basra, Iraq (AFP) March 29, 2008
Eight people were killed in a new air strike in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra early on Saturday as clashes between troops and Shiite fighters continued for the fifth straight day.
More than 180 people have been killed in fierce clashes between Shiite fighters and Iraqi and US-led coalition troops after a crackdown was launched against what the government called "criminal gangs" in Basra on Tuesday.
An AFP photographer said bombs were dropped on the Al-Baath neighbourhood of northwest Basra early on Saturday, killing at least eight people and damaging several houses.
Witnesses said the strike was carried out by US-led coalition warplanes and that several more people were feared killed in the bombing.
The British military in Basra and the US military were not immediately available for comment on the air raid.
American-led coalition forces entered the fight for the first time overnight on Friday when warplanes dropped bombs on Shiite militia positions in Basra.
"Coalition forces are providing capability in those niche areas that the Iraqi armed forces don't have," British military spokesman Major Tom Holloway told AFP on Friday.
"Particularly we are providing them air power over the top of the city. The Iraqi air force does exist but doesn't yet have fast jets. We are also providing surveillance.
"And also they have been providing air support in terms of dropping munitions on identified militia targets in the city."
Meanwhile, clashes on the ground in Basra continued on Saturday.
"Last night we continued our operations in all areas of Basra," an Iraqi army officer told AFP on Saturday on condition of anonymity.
"We have not stopped. We will continue until we have arrested all criminals. This morning we continued raids in areas of Basra and arrested a number of people," he said, without giving specific numbers.
Similar clashes have taken place in other Shiite regions of Iraq since Tuesday.
Baghdad's Sadr City and Kadhimiyah, strongholds of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, the central cities of Kut and Hilla and the southern city of Nasiriyah have all witnessed raging firefights.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed to pursue the crackdown against Shiite gunmen in Basra despite government forces meeting stiff resistance.
On Friday Maliki gave Basra residents until April 8 to surrender heavy and medium weapons in return for money in a bid to cut the supply of weaponry to the militants.
US President George W. Bush called the violence a "defining moment" for Iraq and a key test for the Baghdad government.
Bush said there had been progress in Iraq but "it's still a dangerous, fragile situation," adding that future troop deployment would be based on ensuring that Washington had "enough of a presence" to achieve success.
The crackdown focusing on areas controlled by Sadr's Mahdi Army has severely strained a "freeze" of the militia's activities that the cleric ordered last August.
Basra has become the theatre for a turf war between the Mahdi Army and two rival Shiite factions -- the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and the smaller Fadhila party.
On Wednesday Maliki announced a separate deadline of 72 hours for Shiite gunmen to surrender their weapons which was effective from Tuesday and ended on Friday.
In Baghdad most of the capital's main roads were deserted on Saturday as the city remained under curfew for the second straight day.
The capital has also been hit by bloody gun battles between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi and US troops in which dozens of people have been killed since Tuesday.
Baghdad's Green Zone, seat of the government and the US embassy, also came under mortar bomb or rocket attack on Saturday, Iraqi and US officials said. No information was immediately available on casualties or damage.
earlier related report
The number two commander overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US Army Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, temporarily took charge of US Central Command in a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
Dempsey takes over amid a search for a permanent successor to Fallon, 63, who abruptly announced his departure in mid-March shortly after publication of an article in Esquire magazine portraying Fallon as "The Man Between War and Peace" with Iran, which Washington has accused of pursuing nuclear weapons capability.
Fallon said he stepped down because the press reports created the perception that he opposed the president's policy objectives -- something he denied.
"Under Admiral Fallon's command, the last year in Centcom's area of operation has been one of great progress on a number of fronts" since early 2007, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, describing the admiral as "one of the (military's) best strategic minds in one of the world's most complex regions."
Gates, who has denied there was significant difference between Fallon's views and those of the White House, cited the "tremendous gains that have been made in Iraq," including a reduction of attacks on US troops and Iraqi civilians.
"Afghanistan too has seen successes over the last year -- despite ongoing violence and depsite the reality that, as in Iraq, there will be hard days ahead," Gates said.
Dempsey takes up his duties amid rising tensions in Iraq, which has fallen prey to a resumption of Shiite militia violence in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra, where the militias are battling Iraqi forces.
Afghanistan is witnessing a resurgence in Taliban violence.
Dempsey, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, has served two tours in Iraq -- first as head of US forces in Baghdad and then as the commander training and equipping Iraqi security forces.
"I am confident he is prepared to lead Centcom," Gates said.
Dempsey emerged from the army's ground forces, whereas Fallon rose out of the Marines' ranks and his nomination had been a surprise in a region marked by two land-based conflicts.
Among the potential nominees Bush could pick to head up US Central Command are Dempsey, as well as General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, or Gates' top military advisor, General Peter Chiarelli.
In a brief address Fallon made no mention of any discord surrounding his resignation. He singled out Petraeus as a "brilliant officer" and the "principle instrument of success in Iraq".
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