Iraqi Troops Begin Drive Into Basra

BASRA, Iraq -- Iraqi security forces battled the Mahdi Army militia in Basra on Tuesday in a drive to win control of the southern oil city, but violence appeared to be spreading to Baghdad and other cities.

Police and health workers said at least 12 people were killed in the fighting in districts of central and northern Basra, where Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has a strong presence.

"There are clashes in the streets. Bullets are coming from everywhere and we can hear the sound of rocket explosions. This has been going on since dawn," resident Jamil said by telephone.

Columns of black smoke rose above the city and explosions and machine-gun fire could be heard. Reuters Television pictures showed masked gunmen firing mortars in the street, while others drove around in captured Iraqi army and police vehicles.

The Mahdi Army, which has thousands of fighters, has kept a relatively low profile since last August when Sadr called a ceasefire, one of the main factors behind the sharp reduction in sectarian violence in Iraq in recent months.

But the militia has chafed at the truce, saying U.S. and Iraqi forces exploited it to carry out indiscriminate arrests.

In a statement read out by a senior aide on Tuesday, Sadr called on Iraqis to stage sit-ins all over Iraq and said he would declare a "civil revolt" if attacks by U.S. and Iraqi security forces continued. He also threatened a "third step," but said it was to early to announce what it would be.

Sadr's followers launched what they called "a civil disobedience campaign" in Baghdad on Monday, forcing store-owners to close in several districts.

Pro-Sadr students forced Mustansiriya University in Baghdad to close on Tuesday. Members of Sadr's movement said the protest would spread to other towns and cities from Wednesday.

Police sources said Sadr supporters seized control of five districts in the southern town of Kut on Tuesday after clashes between gunmen and police.