BASRA - Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared Wednesday a month-long state of emergency in the southern city of Basra, the scene of inter-Shiite clashes, as the rest of Iraq stayed in the grip of a surge in violence.

"We are announcing this broad security mobilization for the next month and we hope through negotiations we will gain control of this crisis," Maliki told reporters during a visit to the port city.

He pledged to deal with the Basra crisis with an "iron fist", as he announced the state of emergency.

In Baghdad, four people were killed when insurgents assaulted a police station, a sports commentator was shot dead near his home, and around 40 bodies were recovered in and around the capital.

Over the past two days alone more than 100 people have been killed in a wave of bombings and shootings in Iraq, where the United States has reported gains in developing local forces but a rise in attacks, higher casualties and greater sectarian violence.

Maliki and Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi led a delegation of politicians to Basra to meet with local civilian and security leaders in the city plagued by unrest for the past few weeks that has claimed the lives of hundreds of people.

"A security committee will be formed to defuse the crisis, starting with the disarming of society here in Basra, including the militias and tribes," said Hashemi.

He said checkpoints would be set up to search cars for illegal weapons, adding that many of the tribes had heavy weapons such as mortars. "This is one of the major reasons for the chaos," he said.

"What are these assassinations and murders?" asked Maliki when he arrived. "Who are these gangs kidnapping people? What is going on in this city?

"The security men must be able to work without fear and interference from the political parties," Maliki added. "Iraq can not be stable unless the law and the sovereignty of Iraq is respected."

In Baghdad, explosions resounded across the city as insurgents assaulted a police station in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah, where just two days earlier dozens of people were killed in car bombings.

Grenades and small arms fire were exchanged for an hour before the rebels were driven off. Four civilians were killed and three policemen wounded.

In other violence, a sports correspondent for state-owned television station Iraqiya was shot dead as he left his home in the capital, just days after two British journalists were killed in a Baghdad bombing.

At least 40 corpses turned up in a 24-hour period in and around the capital, most of them shot dead and showing signs of torture, an interior ministry official said.

The discoveries came after a relative hiatus in night-time killings believed to be carried out by armed gangs on sectarian lines following the destruction of a Shiite shrine in February.

Northeast of the capital, in the violence-plagued town of Baquba, gunmen stopped a minibus, ordered the passengers out and then opened fire, killing five and wounding three.

In Muqdadiyah, the town's chief administrator was killed when a bomb went off near his office.

Meanwhile, a US Defense Department report said 71 Iraqi security force battalions were now capable of leading counter-insurgency operations, up from 53 three months ago.

But Iraqi forces still can not function effectively without the backing of US-led troops for air power, logistics, intelligence and other forms of support, it said.

Top US commanders have said they hope to make "fairly substantial" reductions in their 130,000-plus force this year.

However, the military was forced to bring in 1,500 additional troops this week to deal with a growing challenge in the western province of Al-Anbar where insurgents are fighting for control of the provincial capital Ramadi.

"Overall, average weekly attacks during this 'government transition' period were higher than any of the previous periods," the US report said.

The sharp escalation in violence comes as the two top security jobs in Iraq -- the defense and interior ministers -- remain vacant, with Maliki's fragile national unity coalition still unable to agree on candidates.

Maliki indicated that a final decision on the key portfolios would be made by the end of the week, while an associate noted that further changes were planned in the cabinet sworn in on May 20, five months after general elections.

Three ministers -- from the Sunni list, the Shiite bloc and former premier Iyad Allawi's party -- are to be replaced because they do not have the proper qualifications or had not been cleared by the de-Baathification commission, said a Shiite politician who asked to remain anonymous.

05/31/2006 16:27 GMT

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