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Latest update : 2008-03-29

More than 200 people have been reported killed in five days of fighting across southern Iraq and Baghdad since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on Sadr's followers in the southern city of Basra. (Report: R.Tompsett)

Fierce clashes between Shiite gunmen and troops spread to new Shiite areas of Iraq on Saturday as the overall death toll from five days of bloodshed surged to nearly 230.
On Saturday violence was reported from the central Shiite city of Karbala in which 12 "criminals" were killed, local police chief Raed Jawdat Shakir said.
He did not provide further details, but said 25 people were also arrested in the operation that began overnight.
The death toll from similar clashes between Shiite gunmen and Iraqi and US troops in Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City stronghold rose to at least 75, with another 498 people wounded in the past four days.
"Seventy-five people have been killed and 498 wounded in clashes in Sadr City in the last four days," Qassim Mohammed, a spokesman for Baghdad health directorate, told reporters in Sadr City.
He accused the US forces of "creating obstacles" in transporting victims of the violence outside the area.
"They are preventing even international aid workers to help the wounded," he said during a visit to Sadr City's Imam Ali hospital.
Sadr City, bastion of the feared Mahdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has been engulfed in fierce clashes between security forces and the militiamen.
Clashes erupted there after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on Shiite fighters in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday.
Ahmed, a resident of the slum neighbourhood of some two million people, said the situation was deteriorating.
"The hospitals are overflowing with wounded. They can't take any more. Even the medical stores are closed," he said.
"There is no electricity, no water or fuel. We are afraid of gunbattles. The main markets are also closed," he added.
In Basra eight people were killed in a new air strike early on Saturday as clashes between troops and Shiite fighters continued for the fifth straight day.
The countrywide death toll has surged to nearly 230 since Tuesday.
Most of the casualties have been in Sadr City, Basra, the southern city of Nasiriyah and the central cities of Kut and Hilla.
An AFP photographer said US-led coalition warplanes dropped bombs on the Al-Baath neighbourhood of northwest Basra early on Saturday, killing at least eight people. Several more people were feared killed, he said.
The British military in Basra and the US military were not immediately available for comment.
American-led coalition forces entered the fight for the first time overnight on Friday when warplanes targeted 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.
Meanwhile, clashes on the ground in Basra continued.
"Last night we continued our operations in all areas of Basra," an Iraqi army officer told AFP on Saturday on condition of anonymity, adding that the crackdown will continue till "we have arrested all criminals."
Maliki has vowed to pursue the crackdown against Shiite gunmen in Basra even as his forces face stiff resistance.
On Friday he gave residents until April 8 to surrender heavy and medium weapons in return for money in a bid to cut the supply of arms to militants.
Basra is the focus of 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, effective from Tuesday and ending on Friday.
US President George W. Bush called the current clashes 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 on areas controlled by Sadr's militia has severely strained a "freeze" of Mahdi Army activities that the cleric ordered last August.
In Baghdad most main roads were deserted on Saturday as the city remained under curfew for the second day.
Baghdad's Green Zone, seat of the government and the US embassy, again came under mortar bomb or rocket attack, but no information was immediately available on casualties or damage.

Date created : 2008-03-29