The US military launched air strikes in Basra on Friday for the first time since the Iraqi authorities began their crackdown on the Mahdi Army, followers of the Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The intensification of fighting comes as aid agencies warn that the military offensive is stopping food and medical relief efforts and putting civilians at risk.
They said the situation in Basra and in al-Sadr City in Baghdad was "critical." UNICEF spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said that "the situation concerning drinking water is particularly critical. We estimate the population has enough for two days."
The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, said they were unable to reach hospitals in Basra with urgent medical supplies.
The Iraqi ground commander in Basra, Major-General Ali Zaidan, told the Reuters news agency that his forces had killed 120 "enemy" fighters and wounded around 450 since the campaign began.
However, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's forces have failed to drive the fighters off the streets of Basra. The authorities initiated a strict curfew in Baghdad, but that has failed to halt rocket attacks and clashes in the capital.
The Iraqi parliament called an emergency meeting to end the impasse, but only 54 members out of 275 managed to get inside the fortified "Green Zone" compound, which was bombarded by rockets as they gathered.
One missile hit the Green Zone office of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, killing a security guard. The US embassy ordered its staff in the zone to stay under cover when possible and wear body armour and helmets when in the open.
Prime Minister al-Maliki, who had given the Basra militants 72 hours to surrender, extended his deadline, giving them until April 8 to turn in their weapons for cash.
The government says it is fighting "outlaws", but followers of al-Sadr are reported to have accused political parties in the Shi'’a-led government of using military force to marginalise their rivals ahead of local elections due by October.
Amnesty International has warned that the continued fighting puts civilians at risk. On Wednesday, the organisation urged all parties to refrain from indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.
"The continued fighting is creating a deepening crisis for civilians,” said Malcolm Smart on Friday. "Communities that formerly lived in relative harmony are being further torn apart by the desperate conflict that continues to grip Iraq."