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Roadside Bomb Hits Iraqi Commander's Convoy During Show of Force in Militia Stronghold in Basra

A roadside bomb struck an armored vehicle carrying an Iraqi commander and a senior defense official Wednesday as they entered a Shiite militia stronghold that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the southern city of Basra.

Nobody was injured in the blast, which was revealed hours later by one of those in the vehicle, Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari, marring a bid to stage a show of force by Iraqi troops in the oil-rich city.

An Iraqi cameraman for the U.S.-funded Alhurra TV station also was shot and wounded as he was filming the troops.

The government forces did not face the widespread clashes of recent days as they moved toward the sprawling Hayaniyah district in central Basra and drove through the main streets. But the scattered violence underscored the tenacity of the Shiite militias despite what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised would be a "final and decisive battle."

Officials with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in Basra said they tolerated the government move in compliance with a cease-fire order by the radical Shiite cleric under an Iranian-brokered deal to end the fighting.

But they warned they would fight back if security forces resumed large-scale raids and arrests without warrants.

A Mahdi Army spokesman known as Abu Liqa al-Basri said Iraqi forces had raided some houses in Hayaniyah, then withdrew to a single main street.

He said people were moving freely in the sprawling area and gunmen were keeping a low profile. But he accused the Iraqi security forces of creating a "crisis of trust" by violating al-Maliki's order not to detain people without warrants.

"Al-Maliki's orders are the safety valve," he said. "If the Iraqi army continues in its provocative raids, the consequences will be bad."

The situation remained calm but tense in the oil-rich city 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said the vital port area had been secured with the arrival of two Iraqi army battalions and Iraqi marines.

He also said the Iraqi government had informed the U.S.-led coalition in advance that it planned the offensive, but he decline to give a timeframe.

A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. convoy also exploded near a restaurant in Baghdad's main Shiite district of Sadr City, killing at least three Iraqi civilians and wounding 13, police said.

The stakes were high after al-Maliki flew to Basra for a week to personally oversee the crackdown that began on March 25, promising "a decisive and final battle."

U.S. and Iraqi officials have insisted the target of the crackdown was not the Sadrist political movement but criminals and renegade militias. But the Sadrists believed the operation was aimed at weakening their movement before provincial elections this fall.

Fighting has eased after al-Sadr called his fighters off the streets Sunday under a deal brokered by Iran after clashes spread to Baghdad and other southern cities amid anger over the Basra crackdown.

But the gunmen refused to surrender their weapons and several Basra neighborhoods appeared to remain under militia control — developments that left the radical Shiite cleric in a position of power and al-Maliki politically battered.

In issuing his cease-fire order, al-Sadr also called on the government to stop "illegal and haphazard raids" and officials said al-Maliki had agreed that arrests should only be made with warrants, indicating that a deal was reached between the two parties after intense negotiations.

Harith al-Edhari, the director of al-Sadr's office in Basra, said the government was not holding up its part of the deal.

"So far we are adhering to the orders of our commander to hide weapons and refrain from holding arms in public, but the field officers of the Iraqi army are not abiding by the prime minister's instructions not to raid houses of al-Sadr's followers and the Mahdi Army," he said.

The roadside bomb exploded under the Humvee carrying Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, who heads the joint Iraqi army-police forces in the area, and al-Askari as they led a convoy into Hayaniyah at about 9:30 a.m., with troops firing their weapons into the air to clear traffic.

Al-Askari said the vehicle was severely damaged but there were no casualties.

Associated Press Television News footage showed Iraqi commandos on foot guarding nervously as the Humvees drove through the streets before dispersing after about an hour.

The wounded Iraqi cameraman for Alhurra TV, Mazin al-Tayar, told the AP at the hospital that he was shot at twice while traveling with the convoy to film the event. He was in stable condition.

The Basra joint operations center also announced that Iraqi soldiers had detained two suspected militia figures in the Qibla area, but a gunbattle broke out during the raid and an Iraqi army vehicle was set on fire.

The Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said Tuesday that 200 people had been killed, 600 wounded and 170 suspects detained during operations in Basra and he reiterated that an April 8 deadline for gunmen to surrender their weapons would be maintained.

The provincial governor, Mohammed al-Waili, also said the overall situation in the city was "very calm and stable" and a measure of normalcy was returning with government employees ordered back to work.

The faltering effort to drive Shiite militias from Basra has raised doubts about whether the Iraqis are capable of maintaining security in Iraq just a week before top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus is to brief Congress about prospects for further American troop cuts.

Bergner, the U.S. military spokesman, conceded there were problems.

"Overall the majority of the Iraqi security forces performed their mission though some were not up to the task," he said during a news conference in Baghdad.

On Tuesday, Britain froze plans to withdraw about 1,500 soldiers from its 4,000-strong military force that is concentrated in the Basra area this spring and hand over more security responsibility to the Iraqis.

Suspected Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents, meanwhile, continued their campaign against fellow Sunnis who have joined forces with the Americans against the terror network.

Four of the U.S.-allied fighters were killed Wednesday and four others abducted at a fake checkpoint near Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad, police said.