Shiite Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday ordered his followers to reject Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's call to surrender their arms as the premier vowed to press on with his assault against them.
"Sadr has told us not to surrender our arms except to a state that can throw out the (U.S.) occupation," Haider al-Jabari of the Sadr movement's political bureau told AFP in the holy city of Najaf, home to the cleric's main office.
On Wednesday, Maliki gave a 72-hour deadline to Shiite fighters, mostly Mahdi Army militants loyal to the anti-American cleric, to disarm in the southern city of Basra after launching a crackdown against them a day earlier.
The deadline expired on Friday after which Maliki gave the residents of Basra an April 8 deadline to surrender their heavy and medium weapons in return for money in a bid to cut the supply of arms to militants.
The crackdown on areas controlled by Sadr's militia has severely strained a freeze of Mahdi Army activities the cleric ordered in August, which was one of the main reasons for the overall fall in violence in Iraq since June.
Since Tuesday, violence has raged across Shiite regions of Iraq, with nearly 260 people killed as Shiite fighters clashed with troops.
Most of the casualties were in Sadr City, the bastion of Sadr loyalists in Baghdad, southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah and the central cities of Kut and Hilla.
On Saturday, the clashes spread to other parts of Iraq. They erupted in the central Shiite city of Karbala where 12 "criminals" were killed, local police chief Raed Jawdat Shakir said.
At least 75 people have been slain in Sadr City since the fighting erupted on Tuesday after the Basra crackdown. Another 498 people have been wounded, said Qassim Mohammed, a spokesman for Baghdad health directorate.
Fighting continued in Basra for the fifth straight day.
U.S.-led coalition warplanes bombed the Al-Baath neighborhood of northwest Basra early on Saturday, killing at least eight alleged civilians.
There were two more strikes later in the day, British Major Tom Holloway said, adding that at least 50 people had been killed in Basra and another 300 wounded since the fighting started.
On Saturday, Maliki vowed to press ahead against the gunmen, saying they were "worse than al-Qaeda."
"Our determination is strong. We will not leave Basra until security is restored, those who break the law are punished and those who draw their weapons in the face of the state are punished," he said in a statement issued in Baghdad.
The port city is the focus of a turf war between the Mahdi Army and two rival Shiite factions -- the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and the smaller Fadhila party.