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Iraq Extends Deadline for Shi'ite Militias to Disarm

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has extended a deadline for Shi'ite gunmen fighting government forces in the southern city of Basra to surrender their weapons, as coalition forces have dropped bombs on the city.

Mr. Maliki said militants will be rewarded financially if they hand over their weapons anytime between this Saturday and April 8. He had earlier set Friday as the deadline.

The British military says U.S. warplanes dropped bombs today on Basra for the first time in support of Iraqi ground forces. More than 100 people have been killed in fierce fighting in Basra and other areas since Tuesday.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials say the office of Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi has been hit by mortar fire in the fortified Green Zone. There is no word yet on casualties.

The U.S. State Department urged all U.S. embassy personnel in the Green Zone to stay inside reinforced buildings. Two Americans were killed this week by rocket fire there.

Meanwhile, a leading Iranian Shi'ite cleric urged Iraq's government and Shi'ite militant groups to negotiate an end to the clashes. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati called for the talks in his speech during prayers Friday in Tehran.

The militants are mostly followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called for a political solution to the crisis. However, Mr. Maliki has vowed to continue the military offensive in Basra "to the end" with no negotiations or retreat.

Clashes between Sadr's Mahdi Army and Iraqi forces in southern Iraq and Baghdad are straining a seven-month cease-fire called by the cleric.

Iraqi authorities imposed a three-day curfew in Baghdad in a bid to contain violent clashes. Under the curfew, which will last until 5 a.m. Sunday, no unauthorized vehicles or pedestrians are allowed on the streets.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.