A U.S. helicopter fired a Hellfire missile during fighting in a Shiite militia stronghold of Baghdad today, killing at least four people as deadly clashes broke out in Iraq's oil-rich south for the fourth day.
American jets also dropped bombs overnight in Basra in the first use of U.S. air power in the southern oil port since the Iraqi government launched a crackdown against Shiite militias there earlier this week.
Defying a curfew in Baghdad, extremists also lobbed more rockets or mortars against the U.S.-protected Green Zone.
At least two rounds struck the nearby offices of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, killing two guards and wounding four, his daughter Lubna said.
Thick black smoke rose into the sky in the latest of a week of attacks that have prompted the U.S. State Department to order all personnel at the embassy to stay in reinforced structures.
Ground forces called for the airstrike in Sadr City after coming under small-arms fire while clearing a main supply route at 4:10 a.m., U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover said.
He said four gunmen were killed, but Iraqi police and hospital officials said five civilians died and four others were wounded in the attack.
In Basra, the U.S. jets dropped bombs on a mortar team and a militia stronghold in Basra, said Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman. He did not have information about casualties.
The strikes came as tensions rose among followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr angry over a crackdown that has threatened to unravel a militia cease-fire and spark a new cycle of violence after months of relative calm in Iraq.
The situation in Basra remained tense ahead of a Saturday deadline for gunmen to surrender their weapons and renounce violence. Masked militia fighters moved around freely in a southwestern neighborhood and there was little traffic, according to Associated Press Television News footage.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has insisted the fight is targeting criminal gangs in Basra, not al-Sadr's movement, and he has promised "no retreat."
But the crackdown has intensified Sadrist anger over recent raids and detentions by U.S. and Iraqi forces followers say have taken advantage of their 7-month-old cease-fire.
Al-Sadr on Thursday called for a political solution to the burgeoning crisis and an end to the "shedding of Iraqi blood." But the statement, released by a close aide, stopped short of ordering his Mahdi Army militia to halt attacks.
One of his representatives called al-Maliki "a hypocrite" during a Friday sermon calling for an end to military operations and the release of Sadrist detainees.
"He imprisoned and displaced thousands of Iraqi people under the name of democracy. He is killing the citizens in the south of Iraq," Sheik Jalil al-Sarghi said, referring to al-Maliki as U.S. helicopters buzzed over the office where the prayer service was held.
In political developments, the main Shiite bloc in parliament said it would not attend an emergency session called for Friday to find ways to end fighting between government forces and militiamen in southern Iraq.
Deputy parliamentary speaker Khalid al-Attiyah, also a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, said the events in the south are a law and order issue, not legislative.
The bloc has been in contact with its Kurdish allies for them to boycott Friday's session too, which would prevent a quorum, he said.
It was not immediately clear whether house speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, would still attempt to convene a session.
Amid the crisis, the prime minister has decided to skip this weekend's Arab summit in Syria and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi will attend in his place, officials said.
The campaign to rid Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, of lawless gangs and Shiite militias &
some believed tied to nearby Iran &
is a major test for the Shiite leader and for the Iraqi military.
The ability of Iraqi leaders and security forces to control situations like this one is key to U.S. hopes of withdrawing its forces from the country.
The prime minister put his credibility on the line by flying down to Basra on Monday and issuing a weekend deadline for the surrender of Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to al-Sadr.
Helicopters on Friday dropped leaflets calling on residents to help the government in its fight "to rid Basra of outlaws."
Al-Maliki's office also announced it has given residents in Basra until April 8 to turn over "heavy and medium-size weapons" in return for unspecified monetary compensation.
The deadline is separate from the three-day ultimatum announced Wednesday for gunmen to surrender their arms and renounce violence or face harsher measures, government adviser Sadiq al-Rikabi said.
The move instead appeared to be aimed at noncombatants who may have weapons like machine-guns and grenade launchers either for smuggling purposes or to sell to militants or criminal gangs.
The government also announced a days-old curfew in Basra would be loosened to allow people to move around in the city from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to facilitate shopping and other necessary tasks.
The Basra offensive has triggered a violent response among al-Sadr's followers, with dozens killed in Baghdad and across the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq.
At least 22 people &
six civilians, four Iraqi security forces and 12 militants &
were killed Friday in fierce fighting in the southern cities of Mahmoudiya, Nasiriyah and Kut, according to reports from police and army officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
Suspected militia fighters also killed the top administrator in a village near Diwaniyah, police said.
Al-Sadr's office in Mahmoudiya also said 15 Iraqi soldiers had been captured, including two officers, in the city, about 20 miles south of the capital.
Ten rounds of rockets or mortars also were lobbed at a U.S. facility in the southern city of Hillah, although no casualties were reported, the military said.
Sporadic fighting also was reported in predominantly Shiite areas in eastern Baghdad despite a curfew banning unauthorized movement in the capital was imposed from 11 p.m. Thursday to 5 a.m. Sunday.
Purported Mahdi Army gunmen abducted three policemen with their weapons and vehicle in one area and clashes erupted between militiamen and U.S.-Iraqi troops in another, according to police.
The U.S. military did not immediately comment on the latest reports but said 26 militants died during operations Thursday in mostly Shiite areas in Baghdad.
U.S. airstrike kills 4 in Baghdad