BASRA, Iraq - Iraq's new prime minister declared a one-month state of emergency in the city of Basra today, vowing to strike with an "iron fist" against gangs and feuding Shi'ite factions threatening vital oil exports.
"We have ordered the army unit (in Basra) to deploy in the streets," Nuri al-Maliki told reporters in Iraq's second city, which is in the grip of a fierce power struggle.
"We call this month the month of security in Basra," the no-nonsense Shi'ite Islamist said, 11 days after taking office. "We hope after this month that we will come back to Basra and see that the situation has improved a lot."
Iraqi forces will patrol Basra day and night, search for weapons and set up checkpoints, a government source said.
Maliki, who took office on May 20 pledging to rein in relentless violence plaguing Iraq, also announced the formation of a four-person security committee to deal with the situation in Basra during the state of emergency.
Security has deteriorated sharply in Basra over the past year as Shi'ite groups tussle for a share of the power handed to the majority by the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated administration three years ago.
It was not immediately clear whether British troops patrolling Iraq's mainly Shi'ite south, including Basra, would play any role in the security operation.
Maliki, who was heading a high-level government delegation to Basra to restore stability, earlier vowed to crack down on groups threatening security and oil exports.
Basra, whose oil accounts for virtually all of Iraq's state revenues, is a major prize for all parties.
Stressing Basra was crucial for the country, Maliki told local leaders in an address broadcast live on television: "We will beat with an iron fist on the heads of gangs who are manipulating security ... Security is first, second and third." Maliki is a leading member of the ruling, but fractious, Shi'ite Islamist United Alliance.
The main Alliance factions in Basra's power struggle are the armed Badr organisation, the governor's Fadhila party and the movement of cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr. A source close to Fadhila warned last week it could halt oil exports.
Washington hopes Maliki's grand coalition of Shi'ites, minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds will tackle widespread guerrilla and sectarian violence that threatens to tear Iraq apart.
But there is little sign of any let-up in the cycle of killings and revenge attacks, with a spate of bombings claiming at least 100 lives this week, mainly in Baghdad. Most of the victims were civilians.
Police said they had found 42 bodies over the last 24 hours in different parts of the capital -- bound, tortured and shot.
Also in Baghdad, gunmen killed Ali Jaafar, sports anchorman for Iraqi state television, as he left his home, police said.
Several journalists from the government-funded station have been targeted by insurgents waging a violent campaign to topple US-backed Iraqi leaders.
US military officials say the killing of 24 civilians in the town of Haditha last year appears to have been an unprovoked attack by US Marines, after an investigation found the victims died of gunshot wounds, The New York Times reported.
The findings contradicted Marines' claims that the civilians were victims of a roadside bomb, the newspaper said.
The report, citing an unidentified senior military official in Iraq, said the investigation in February and March led by Colonel Gregory Watt uncovered death certificates showing they were shot mostly in the head and chest.
"There were enough inconsistencies that things didn't add up," the senior official was quoted as saying by the Times.
Residents of Haditha, 200km northwest of Baghdad in an area that has seen much activity by Sunni Arab insurgents, have told Reuters that US Marines attacked houses after their patrol was hit by a roadside bomb.
US commentators talk of "Iraq's My Lai" and wonder if Haditha could have a similar effect as the 1968 massacre in Vietnam on public attitudes to the military and the war.
In Baghdad, Saddam's defence attorneys accused the prosecution of trying to buy a witness and putting someone on the stand who perjured himself at the trial for crimes against humanity after a failed assassination bid on Saddam in 1982.
Speaking from behind a curtain to hide his identity, a defence witness accused chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi of offering him money in 2004 to give false testimony.
"One day they took me to a room where I met someone and he said: 'What you are saying is not good for us or the Iraqi people. We want to have the tyrant Saddam executed'," he said.
Moussawi denied this and asked the court to prosecute the witness.