BAGHDAD — Iraq's prime minister pledged Thursday to expand his crackdown on Shiite militias to Baghdad, despite a mixed performance so far against militants in the southern city of Basra.
The U.S. ambassador, meanwhile, said that despite a "boatload" of problems with the Basra operation, he was encouraged the Shiite-led government was finally confronting extremists regardless of their religious affiliation.
Iraqi forces launched a major operation March 25 to rid Basra of Shiite militias and criminal gangs that had effectively ruled the city of 2-million since 2005. But the offensive stalled in the face of fierce resistance from the militiamen and an uprising across the Shiite south spearheaded by the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Fighting eased Sunday when Sadr ordered his fighters to stand down under a deal brokered in Iran.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, insisted that the campaign to reclaim Basra was on track and that he would soon go after "criminal gangs" in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Maliki specified two Baghdad neighborhoods — Sadr City and Shula — where the Mahdi militia holds sway and where U.S. and Iraqi forces have clashed with militants in recent days.
Maliki also said the government would spend $100-million to improve public services in Basra and create 25,000 jobs there — moves aimed at weaning away support for the militias.
Although major fighting eased last weekend, military operations are continuing in the Basra area.