A man carries his son who was injured in clashes between the Mahdi Army and U.S. forces in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 27, 2008. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's followers say security forces are abusing a cease-fire by his Mahdi Army militia to unfairly target them in raids. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
BAGHDAD - A U.S. helicopter fired a Hellfire missile during fighting in a Shiite militia stronghold of Baghdad on Friday, while U.S. pilots conducted their first airstrikes on the southern city of Basra to aid Iraqi forces battling powerful Shiite militias.
The American air support marked a sharp escalation in the fight — so far led by Iraqi security forces — to cripple armed factions that the Pentagon accuses of links to Iran. It also suggested that the four-day-old ground offensives by Iraqi troops and police are struggling against strong militia resistance.
President Bush said Friday that the flare up in violence presents "a defining moment in the history of Iraq."
"It's going to take awhile, but it's a necessary part of the development of a free society," Bush said at a White House news conference with visiting Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. At the same time, the president said the situation in Iraq remains "dangerous and fragile."
Washington has called the campaign an important test of Iraq's ability to handle its own security affairs. But setbacks in the battles could increasingly draw in American forces, worried that a sustained fight could wipe away many of the security gains in recent months.
In Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood — a center for the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — the U.S. military said the missile strike killed four militants, although Iraqi officials said five civilians were killed.
American jets also dropped bombs overnight in Basra in the first use of U.S. air power in the southern oil port since the Iraqi government launched a crackdown against Shiite militias there on Tuesday. U.S. and British jets previously had provided surveillance.
Another U.S. airstrike targeted a rocket-propelled grenade mounted vehicle in the northern neighborhood of Azamiyah, killing two militants, the military said separately.
Defying a curfew in Baghdad, extremists lobbed more rockets or mortars against the U.S.-protected Green Zone, which has come under steady barrages this week, prompting the State Department to order embassy personnel to stay inside.
At least two rounds Friday struck the nearby offices of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, killing two guards and wounding four, his daughter Lubna said.
Ground forces called for the airstrike in Sadr City after coming under small-arms fire while clearing a main supply route before dawn, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover said.
He said four gunmen were killed, but Iraqi police and hospital officials said five civilians died and four others were wounded in the attack.
U.S. troops also fought militants on the ground in Sadr City and targeted rocket and mortar teams elsewhere in the capital, another spokesman Maj. Mark Cheadle said.
"We have conducted direct engagements from the ground and air in and around Sadr City when attacked or positively identified terrorists," he said.
In Basra, the U.S. jets dropped bombs on a mortar team and a militia stronghold, said Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman. He did not have information about casualties.
The strikes came as rising anger among followers of al-Sadr threatened to unravel a militia cease-fire and spark a new cycle of violence after months of relative calm in Iraq.
The situation in Basra remained tense as a Friday deadline for gunmen to surrender their weapons and renounce violence expired, although few complied.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office announced a new offer, offering Basra residents unspecified monetary compensation if they turn over "heavy and medium-size weapons" by April 8.
Masked militia fighters, meanwhile, moved around freely in a southwestern neighborhood and there was little traffic, according to Associated Press Television News footage.
Al-Maliki has insisted the fight is targeting criminal gangs in Basra, not al-Sadr's movement, and he has promised "no retreat."
But the crackdown has intensified Sadrist anger over recent raids and detentions by U.S. and Iraqi forces followers say have taken advantage of their seven-month-old cease-fire.
Al-Sadr on Thursday called for a political solution to the burgeoning crisis and an end to the "shedding of Iraqi blood" but stopped short of ordering his Mahdi Army militia to halt attacks in a statement released by an aide.
Another al-Sadr representative called al-Maliki "a hypocrite" during a Friday sermon calling for an end to military operations and the release of Sadrist detainees.
"He imprisoned and displaced thousands of Iraqi people under the name of democracy. He is killing the citizens in the south of Iraq," Sheik Jalil al-Sarghi said, referring to al-Maliki as U.S. helicopters buzzed over the office where the prayer service was held.
In political developments, the Iraqi parliament decided to set up a committee to mediate an end to the deadly clashes at an emergency session. But the largest Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, refused to participate, saying the legislature should not interfere in a law enforcement issue.
The campaign to rid Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, of lawless gangs and Shiite militias — some believed tied to nearby Iran — is a major test for the Shiite leader and for the Iraqi military.
The prime minister put his credibility on the line by flying down to Basra on Monday. Helicopters on Friday dropped leaflets calling on residents to help the government in its fight "to rid Basra of outlaws."
The government also announced a days-old curfew in Basra would be loosened to allow people to move around in the city from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to facilitate shopping and other necessary tasks.
The Basra offensive has triggered a violent response among al-Sadr's followers, with dozens killed in Baghdad and across the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq.
At least 26 people were killed Friday in fierce fighting in the southern cities of Mahmoudiya, Nasiriyah and Kut, according to police and army officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
In all, the U.S. military said 13 suspected militants were killed Friday and 26 on Thursday in Baghdad operations.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Saad Abdul-Kadir contributed to this report.