BASRA, Iraq (AFP) — Heavy fighting erupted in a bastion of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia in Basra onThursday, witnesses said, as military operations against gunmen in the southern city entered a third day.
An AFP correspondent said rocket propelled grenades and mortar, machine gun and small arms fire rocked the central Jumhuriyah neighbourhood from early morning.
Iraqi troops launched security operations on Tuesday in neighbourhoods controlled by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia under orders from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to rid the city of "lawless gangs".
Fighting has spread to Sadr's stronghold in Baghdad and other cities, with at least 50 people killed in the clashes countrywide since Tuesday, according to Iraqi officials.
Police spokesman Colonel Karim al-Zaidi said the convoy of Basra police chief Major General Abdul Jalil Khalaf was hit by a suicide car bomber around 1:00 am on Thursday (2200 GMT Wednesday) as it passed through the streets of the city.
"Three policemen were killed in the attack," Zaidi said, adding that Khalaf was unharmed.
Residents said the streets of the oil-rich city of 1.5 million people, the economic nerve centre of Iraq, were deserted on Thursday and that shops and businesses were shut.
Maliki on Wednesday gave militiamen battling his forces in Basra 72 hours to lay down their arms and warned that those failing to do so would face the full brunt of the law.
Basra has become the theatre of a bitter 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.
The three factions are fighting to control the huge oil revenues generated in the province, which was transferred to Iraqi control by the British military in December.
Sadr's powerful movement called protest rallies for Thursday "to express no confidence in the Maliki government" in the wake of the Basra assault.
US military spokesman Major General Kevin Bergner told a news conference on Wednesday that 2,000 extra Iraqi security forces had been sent to Basra for the operation.
He said it was aimed at improving security in the city ahead of provincial elections in October.
"The prime minister's assessement is that without this operation there will not be any hopeful prospect of improving security in Basra," Bergner said.
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