BAGHDAD - Britain froze plans yesterday to withdraw about 1,500 soldiers this spring after the faltering effort to drive Shi'ite militias from Basra raised doubts about whether the Iraqis are capable of maintaining security in oil-rich southern Iraq.
Iraq's government reported a 50 percent rise in the number of people killed in March over the previous month. Much of the increase was a result of the fighting between Iraqi government forces and Shi'ite militiamen in the southern city of Basra. The conflict quickly spread, engulfing Baghdad and major cities throughout the Shi'ite south.
Britain had planned to draw down its 4,000-strong military force in southern Iraq to 2,500 over the next few months.
In the wake of the Basra fighting, however, Defense Secretary Des Browne told the House of Commons that "it is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding."
Browne offered no criticism of the Iraqi effort in Basra, launched March 25 to regain control of the country's second-largest city from Shi'ite militias and criminal gangs that have effectively ruled the streets for nearly three years.
The operation faltered in the face of fierce resistance from the Mahdi Army of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, forcing the Iraqi military to turn to US jets and British tanks and artillery to try to dislodge the gunmen from their strongholds.
Britain's opposition Conservative party defense spokesman, Liam Fox, complained that the Iraqis had not fully consulted their coalition partners before launching the operation.
Fox said it was "not acceptable for us to end up mopping up if we don't have a say in what operations are being carried out and how they are being carried out."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, flew to Basra last week and took command of the crackdown, promising he would remain in the city for "a decisive and final battle" to crush the militias.
Fighting eased after Sadr called his fighters off the streets Sunday under a deal brokered by Iran. But Sadr's fighters refused to surrender their weapons - a development which left the cleric in a position of power and Maliki politically battered.
Maliki returned yesterday to Baghdad, declaring the operation a success although several Basra neighborhoods appeared to remain under militia control. Sadr, meanwhile, thanked his fighters for "defending your people, your land and your honor."
US and Iraqi officials have insisted the target of the crackdown was not the Sadrist political movement but criminals and renegade militias. But the Sadrists believed the operation was aimed at weakening their movement before provincial elections this fall.
The recent carnage threatened to reverse the security gains achieved in Iraq since President Bush ordered 30,000 US reinforcements to Iraq early last year.
Figures compiled by the ministries of health, interior, and defense showed that at least 1,720 people were killed in politically motivated violence in March. That was up sharply from the 953 figure for February.
Figures tabulated by The Associated Press from police and US military reports put the March death toll as of Monday at 1,247 - nearly double the February figure and the biggest monthly toll since August, when 1,956 people died.
The latest bloodshed and Iraqi military capabilities are expected to draw attention next week when the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, briefs Congress about prospects for further troop cuts. The Pentagon is expected to reduce US troop levels from about 158,00 to about 140,000 by the end of July.
Petraeus has repeatedly warned that security gains are fragile and has already indicated that he wants a "period of assessment" for at least several weeks after July before deciding on the timing of further withdrawals.
Sporadic fighting continued yesterday in Baghdad and Basra, but the cities were generally calm. Several rounds were fired late in the day toward the Green Zone, but there were no reports of damage or casualties.
Before dawn, a US helicopter fired a missile at gunmen attacking American forces in the Baghdad militia stronghold of Sadr City, killing six militants, US officials said. Iraqi police and witnesses said three civilians were killed.