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Iraqi PM Vows to Battle Shi'ite Fighters in Basra

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to continue a military assault on Shi'ite fighters in the southern city of Basra.

In remarks broadcast Saturday on state television, Mr. Maliki said government forces will remain in Basra until security is restored and those who have been fighting Iraqi troops are punished.

He also said the Shi'ite gunmen are worse than al-Qaida fighters.

The prime minister spoke as aides to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr told foreign media Sadr has ordered his followers to reject Mr. Maliki's call to surrender their arms.

The prime minister set an April 8 deadline for militant fighters to surrender their weapons, in exchange for money.

More than 200 people have been killed in fighting between Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militias in Basra and Baghdad since Tuesday, when Mr. Maliki ordered a crackdown on militants in Basra.

U.S. military officials said two multinational force soldiers were killed Saturday when a bomb struck their vehicle in eastern Baghdad.

Many casualties have occurred in Baghdad's Sadr City, a stronghold of militias loyal to Sadr. A spokesman for Iraq's Health Ministry says at least 75 people have been killed and nearly 500 wounded in clashes and U.S.-led airstrikes in Sadr City.

A British military spokesman, Major Tom Holloway, says U.S. warplanes bombed militia strongholds Saturday in a neighborhood just north of Basra. There was no word on casualties.

Witnesses say eight people were killed in a U.S. airstrike earlier today in the southern city.

On Friday, U.S.-led coalition aircraft joined Iraqi military ground forces for the first time in their effort to crack down on the militias.

Reports say dozens of policemen in Sadr City surrendered their weapons to Sadr's forces, saying they could not fight their own people.

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