ו חֶרֶב לַיהוָה מָלְאָה דָם, הֻדַּשְׁנָה מֵחֵלֶב, מִדַּם כָּרִים וְעַתּוּדִים, מֵחֵלֶב כִּלְיוֹת אֵילִים: כִּי זֶבַח לַיהוָה בְּבָצְרָה, וְטֶבַח גָּדוֹל בְּאֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם. 6 The sword of the LORD is filled with blood, it is made fat with fatness, with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams; for the LORD hath a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
Heavy fighting raged in Basra after thousands of Iraqi troops raided the oil-rich city in an offensive the Baghdad government said was aimed at disarming militias and restoring the rule of law.
At least four people were reported killed, while unconfirmed medical estimates put the toll at 27 killed and 60 others injured, many of them civilians caught in the cross-fire.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in an undisclosed military base in Basra personally supervising the offensive, which the authorities insist was not aimed at any particular group, but clearly targeting maverick Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's movement and its Mahdi Army.
British military officials said Western aircraft were patrolling the skies above Basra to assist Iraqi forces if needed, but that British forces were not taking part in the operation.
Since the British forces returned control of Basra to the Iraqis in December and moved to the city airport, the province's residents have complained of rising crime as armed Shiite groups struggle for political and economic control in this oil hub, the source of most of Iraq's revenues.
The government - also led by the Shiites - says the Iraqi military offensive, which began a day after imposing an indefinite nigh-time curfew, was to restore order and sweep out the "criminals and gangs terrorizing the citizens."
Maliki, who on Monday dismissed the two top security officials in Basra, said from the city that the government "will restore security, stability and enforce the rule of law."
Officials say the troops were cracking down on "all those who point their guns at the state," but Sadr's followers say the offensive, dubbed "Charge of the Knights," was politically-motivated and aimed specifically at them for their stances against the U.S. occupation.
The Sadrists say if the operation was just a security one, they would fully cooperate with the government's attempt to restore order, adding that while they don't seek a confrontation with the authorities, the people had the right to defend themselves when they are being attacked.
Moqtada Sadr last month renewed a six-month ceasefire, but recently told his supporters they were free to defend themselves against attacks.
The U.S. forces and the Iraqi government have attributed the Mahdi militia's truce to a reduction in violence, but a recent surge in attacks on American and Iraqi troops have been blamed on "renegade elements" from within the Sadrists. They say they are targeting these elements, which they claim are linked to Iran that it repeatedly denies.
Despite the government's insistence that the Basra operation was not specifically targeting any political groups, the Sadrists see it as a continuation of a crackdown in recent weeks against its members in other provinces.
That's why Sadr issued a statement from the holy city of Najaf on Tuesday, calling on Iraqis to launch nationwide protests, strikes and civil disobedience if the government does not meet demands to end the crackdown on the movement he leads.
As fighting spread across Basra, hundreds of people marched through the streets of Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad protesting the arrests of its leaders and supporters.
The Sadrist movement had already called for civil disobedience after the authorities began raiding its offices in different parts of the country, and government officials accused the group of forcing people to abide by a general strike at gunpoint.
Mahdi Army spokesmen denied its members had forcefully prevented civilians from going about their daily lives, saying these charges were attempts to undermine the civil disobedience program.
The armed confrontation with the Sadrists and its militant wing quickly spread in other areas of the country, including Sadr City in the suburbs of Baghdad, where the Mahdi Army declared it had taken control of Iraqi army checkpoints. Residents reportedly stocked up on food and water supplies in the district in anticipation of more fighting to come.
In an attempt to contain other Sadrist strongholds in the wake of the operation in Basra, the government imposed curfews in the southern Shiite cities of Kut, Samawa and Nasiriyah.
Iraqi critics say they expect the Basra offensive to backfire at the government, which some accuse of being used as a U.S. proxy to fight the thorn in the occupying forces' side: Sadr and his followers, who apparently enjoy widespread grassroots support, especially from the impoverished Shiites who make up the majority of this community, said to be ready to revolt.
The critics suggest the Americans were seeking an internal Iraqi battle to refocus the anti-occupation resistance against the Iraqi authority, after the U.S. troop death toll since the March 2003 invasion reached 4,000 this week.
But they warn the fighting, whether led by the Iraqi or U.S. forces, would intensify the insurgency and again raise the level of violence in this war-torn country.