BAGHDAD — Anti-American Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers Saturday to defy government orders to surrender their weapons, as U.S. jets struck Shiite extremists near Basra to bolster a faltering Iraqi offensive against gunmen there.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged he may have miscalculated by failing to foresee the strong backlash that his offensive, which began Tuesday, provoked in areas of Baghdad and other cities where Shiite militias wield power.
Despite the mounting crisis, Maliki, a Shiite, vowed to remain in Basra until government forces wrest control from militias, including Sadr's Mahdi Army. He called the fight in Basra "a decisive and final battle."
British troops, who controlled the city until handing it over to the Iraqis in December, also joined the battle for Basra, firing artillery Saturday for the first time in support of Iraqi forces.
Iraqi authorities have given Basra extremists until April 8 to surrender heavy and medium weapons after an initial 72-hour ultimatum to hand them over was widely ignored.
But a defiant Sadr called on his followers Saturday to ignore the order, saying that his Mahdi Army would turn in its weapons only to a government that can "get the occupier out of Iraq," referring to the Americans.
Shiite militias in Basra openly controlled wide swaths of the city on Saturday and staged increasingly bold raids on Iraqi government forces, witnesses said.
Witnesses in Basra said the Mahdi Army was setting up checkpoints and controlling traffic in many places ringing the central district controlled by some of the 30,000 Iraqi army and police forces.
Senior members of several political parties said on Saturday that the operation had been poorly planned. The growing discontent adds a new level of complication to the U.S.-led effort to demonstrate that the Iraqi government had made strides toward being able to operate a functioning country and keep the peace without thousands of U.S. troops.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.