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Warring Militants Threaten Iraq's Fragile Security

Iraq may be facing the gravest challenge to its fragile security in more than a year. Shiite militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are fighting Iraqi government forces for control of the southern city of Basra, and the violence is spreading to Baghdad.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who went to Basra to run the Iraqi security forces' operation personally, said Wednesday morning that the militiamen have 72 hours to lay down their arms.

"He has a lot at stake, as this is the first Iraqi-led operation like this, and it is becoming a test as to how, and if, Iraqis can handle their own security," NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who is in Baghdad, tells Steve Inskeep. Residents in Basra say the fighting between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi forces has been instense, with 38 killed and 134 wounded as of Tuesday, she says.

In Baghdad, Temple-Raston reports, armed Mahdi militiamen are openly out on streets for the first time in more than six months.

"They've always been there, but they've always been sort of lurking in the shadows and trying to avoid confrontation. Now, there's an open confrontation going on."

U.S. troops have gone into Sadr City, and residents there say intense firefights are going on. Cars and tires are burning. And 20 people were killed and 115 injured Tuesday in Sadr City alone. Al-Sadr has called on his followers to observe a nationwide strike, and shopkeepers who defy his order and open their businesses reportedly are getting shot.

The number of bodies being delivered to the morgue has doubled overnight. "The surge of U.S. troops brought a stop to a lot of the sectarian violence in Baghdad, and this jump in morgue numbers indicates that that gain might be slipping," Temple-Raston says.

"We're seeing larger numbers of bodies turning up, which means that these Mahdi Army tensions are leading to sectarian ones as well."

The violence is relatively limited compared with the situation a year ago, but there is a sense in the city that the violence could spread, she says.

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Dina Temple-Raston
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
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