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Dozens killed as Iraq fighting rages

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Written on 4:50 PM by yahoo

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq's government imposed a weekend curfew in Baghdad on Thursday amid clashes between government troops and Shiite militia fighters, and U.S. Embassy staff were told to remain indoors after days of rocket attacks left two Americans dead.

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Smoke rises after a mortar attack as U.S helicopters fly over the International Zone Thursday in Baghdad.

The curfew, which took effect at 11 p.m. Thursday (4 p.m. ET), bans pedestrian, motorcycle and vehicle traffic through 5 p.m. Sunday, said Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman.

U.S. Embassy workers in Iraq were told to remain in secure buildings and wear protective clothing as rockets continued to rain down on Baghdad's International Zone.

Iraq's parliament called a special session for Friday to address the crisis caused by three days of fighting between government troops and Shiite Muslim militia fighters, while Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for an end to attacks on his followers.

A U.S. government official was killed in one of those rocket attacks Thursday, an embassy spokesman said. The man's name is not being released; he was the second U.S. government official to die in the attacks this week.

The first, Paul Converse, died Wednesday from wounds he sustained Sunday, officials said.

Such strikes, called indirect fire attacks, have been occurring for days. The military believes that they are being launched by Shiite militants.

"Personnel should only move outside of hard cover for essential reasons. Essential outdoor movements should be sharply limited in duration," an Embassy statement read. "Personal protective equipment is mandatory for all outside movements."

In addition to Thursday's death in the International Zone, a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad, the U.S. military reported.

The International Zone, often called the Green Zone, is a heavily fortified central Baghdad district housing the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices.

Fighting between Iraqi government troops and what officials call rogue or outlaw members of Shiite militias has spread through southern Iraq's Shiite heartland to Baghdad since the launch of a government crackdown in Basra on Tuesday. Three days of fighting have left more than 100 Iraqis dead.

The fighting threatens to unravel a seven-month cease-fire by al-Sadr's Mehdi Army.

Casualty figures from Basra weren't available Thursday, but the number of deaths is expected to rise from the 40 to 50 reported Wednesday.

Al-Sadr issued a statement Thursday urging "all groups to adopt a political situation and peaceful protest and to stop shedding the Iraqi blood," according to a senior member of al-Sadr's movement. The official, Hazem al-Araji, said the statement was being distributed to all the movement's offices across Iraq.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has been overseeing the operation in southern Iraq, has given militants an ultimatum to surrender their weapons by Saturday.

In Washington, U.S. State Department official Richard Schmierer said the rocket attacks appear to be coming from fighters affiliated with al-Sadr who were "trying to make a statement" about the government offensive in Basra.

"We probably won't know for some time exactly what is behind it, but that seems to be the general approach," said Schmierer, the State Department's director of Iraq affairs. But he discounted the prospect that the cease-fire, first ordered in August, was collapsing, blaming the violence on "marginal extremist elements" who have associated themselves with the Sadrist movement.

Iraq's Interior Ministry said mortar rounds killed one person and wounded four in the city's central Karrada district on Thursday evening, and the ministry's own compound was hit by one shell, wounding seven police officers.

"These rogue elements are haphazardly firing rockets and mortars, killing and injuring innocent Iraqi and governmental civilians," Col. Allen Batschelet is quoted as saying in a U.S. military news release. He is chief of staff for the American-led Multi-National Division-Baghdad.

"Most Iraqi civilians want peace and stability," he said. "These few are trying to discredit the government of Iraq and Iraqi Security Forces. Our response will be measured, targeted and precise."

Also Thursday in Baghdad, dozens of gunmen kidnapped the spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, Tahseen Sheikhly. Three of his guards were killed and his house burned in the attack, which an Interior Ministry official said was carried out by "outlaws," a reference to al-Sadr's militia.

Also Thursday, a car bomb killed three people and wounded five others near a police patrol in central Baghdad, an Interior Ministry official said. There are no apparent links to the violence in the Shiite regions.

People in Basra report smoke rising and gunfire and explosions ringing out across the city. Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S. and British troops, have been taking on fighters using grenades, mortar rounds and machine guns.

There was fighting Thursday in Jamhouriya, one of five neighborhoods the Mehdi Army controls, and Muqal, according to an official from Basra province and witnesses.

The provincial official said on condition of anonymity that weapons such as machine guns and grenades were stolen from a military post in the Muqal area.

Al-Maliki briefed city and provincial officials Wednesday about the offensive and vowed to finish the job, even if it takes a month.

Provincial officials expressed reservations about the operation, saying Basra will fall into the hands of "outlaws" if al-Maliki fails to restore order.

Since the fighting started, Sadrists and government officials have spoken by phone in efforts to quell the violence, but no face-to-face talks have been scheduled. The Sadrists, who say security forces have unfairly targeted them in recent weeks, have been urging their followers to stage protests against the government. But the cease-fire has not been rescinded.

Basra has been relatively quiet during the war, but the southern city has seethed with intra-Shiite tensions as Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Fadhila party have jockeyed for power.

Much of the fighting in the Shiite heartland involves followers of al-Sadr and security forces aligned with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq's militia, the Badr Brigade.

The council dominates the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, but the Sadrist movement left the government last year after al-Maliki refused to demand a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. Both groups have strong contingents in the Iraqi parliament.

A provincial council official also said insurgents sabotaged an oil pipeline Thursday in Zubeir, a town near Basra. The attack sparked a large fire on the pipeline, which transfers crude oil to tanks in the city.

Meanwhile, the FBI identified the remains of two U.S. contractors who had been missing in Iraq for more than a year, a bureau spokesman said Thursday.

Minnesotan Paul Johnson-Reuben, 41, and Californian Joshua Munns, 25, were among four men kidnapped in November 2006 during an ambush in the southern Iraqi town of Safwan. All four worked for the Crescent Security Group, a Kuwaiti-based firm that escorts convoys.

The other two men -- Jonathon Cote, 25, and Bert Nussbaumer, 26 -- are still listed as missing. The FBI has the remains of one more body, which the bureau is trying to identify.
cnn

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