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Monday, August 28, 2006

Shi'ite militia, Iraqi troops in fierce clashes

DIWANIYA, Iraq, Aug 28 (Reuters) - Two dozen Iraqi soldiers were killed in fierce street fighting with Shi'ite militiamen in the city of Diwaniya on Monday in some of the bloodiest clashes yet among rival factions in Shi'ite southern Iraq.

Thirty seven people were killed, according to army, militia and medical sources. Five soldiers were posted missing in a battle officials said began late on Sunday when troops tried to detain men of the Mehdi Army militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

In Baghdad, a suicide car bomber killed 13 policemen and wounded 62 other people outside the Interior Ministry, police said, in one of the deadliest attacks in the city since U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a big security clampdown three weeks ago.

Seven U.S. soldiers were among more than 60 people killed on Sunday in violence that challenged assertions by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that his forces had the upper hand in violence that many fear could turn into all-out civil war.

The chief U.S. military spokesman said killings in Baghdad had almost halved this month from last, but acknowledged that there had been a spike again in the past two days.

Insurgents from the once dominant Sunni Arab minority of Saddam Hussein long posed the main threat to U.S. efforts to install a stable elected government but militia violence against Sunnis and among Shi'ites may now be killing more people.

In Diwaniya, a Reuters reporter saw gunmen in control of intersections in the south of the provincial capital, 180 km (110 miles) south of Baghdad, while uniformed, U.S.-trained Iraqi troops appeared in control of northern parts of town.

He counted 19 bodies in army uniform in the hospital morgue and seven civilians. Hospital officials said some families had already removed relatives' bodies. One said 25 soldiers and nine civilians were killed, including a 12-year-old girl. A source in Sadr's local office said three Mehdi Army fighters had died.

An Iraqi army source in Diwaniya said 25 soldiers were killed and five were missing after 18 hours of clashes.


As U.S. aircraft circled overhead, the sound of mortars, machineguns and rifle fire died down on Monday afternoon. The U.S. military spokesman said he was unaware of any fighting.

The provincial governor, Khalil Jalil Hamza, went to the nearby Shi'ite religious centre of Najaf to meet leading figures in Sadr's populist movement, local government officials said.

Hamza is a member of a rival Shi'ite Islamist party, SCIRI, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. SCIRI and Mehdi Army groups have clashed in the past across southern Iraq, which is dominated by the long-oppressed Shi'ite majority now in power in Baghdad.

Supporters of Sadr and Hakim are, like Maliki, key players in the Shi'ite Alliance bloc that controls almost half the parliament elected in December. In what government officials say reflects Maliki's frustration with mixed loyalties from Sadr's camp, the prime minister plans a cabinet reshuffle shortly.

Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told Reuters on Sunday of the reshuffle: "Some people have a foot in the government and a foot outside. They have to make a choice."

Maliki, backed by U.S. and British forces, has vowed to disband militias. But, 100 days after his unity coalition was sworn in, they remain central players in power struggles among rival Shi'ite factions dominant across southern Iraq, including the city of Basra, hub for one of the world's great oilfields.

Maliki said on Sunday violence was declining and that Iraq would never slide into civil war, although he refused to be drawn on a timetable for withdrawing the 130,000 U.S. and 7,000 British troops who form the bulk of foreign combat forces.

Since Sadr's men mounted two abortive uprisings in 2004, taking heavy casualties when confronted by U.S. tanks, British troops have increasingly borne the brunt of Mehdi Army attacks.

British Defence Minister Des Browne, in Baghdad on Monday, said his troops would hand over a second of the four British-run southern provinces to formal Iraqi security control shortly.

Such handovers are central to what Washington and London see as a gradual process of withdrawing their troops and leaving a stable Iraq. Setbacks for Iraqi forces in imposing the will of the central government show the difficulties that lie ahead. (Additional reporting by Michael Georgy, Alastair Macdonald, Mussab Al-Khairalla, Ross Colvin and Ibon Villelabeitia)
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