DIWANIYAH (AP) â€” Shiites armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic assault rifles battled Iraqi forces for 12 hours Monday, leaving 40 people dead, mostly soldiers, and underlining the Shiite-led government’s difficulties as it tries to rein in the violent sectarian forces of a cleric.
The fighting in this southern city dominated a day that saw at least 19 people die in two suicide car bombings in Baghdad â€” one outside the interior ministry and one on a line of cars waiting for fuel at a gas station.
The US military announced that nine US soldiers were killed over the weekend in and around Baghdad, eight of them by roadside bombs and one by gunfire.
Diwaniyah, 130 kilometres south of Baghdad, is a Shiite-dominated city where the influence of firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army has been gradually increasing. The Mehdi Army already runs a virtual parallel government in Sadr City, a slum in eastern Baghdad.
But the government of Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, a Shiite, has found it difficult to rein in Sadr, whose movement holds 30 of the 275 seats in parliament and five Cabinet posts. Sadr’s backing also helped Maliki win the top job during painstaking negotiations within the Shiite alliance that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari.
Many Sunnis have expressed disappointment that Maliki’s government has not moved to curb Shiite groups, especially the Mehdi Army. A prominent Iraqi Sunni cleric said Friday he was willing to meet with top Shiite religious leaders, part of an initiative to curb sectarian violence â€” but also to press Shiite leaders into a response.
American forces also have been wary of confronting the group, because of Sadr’s clout over the government and his large following among majority Shiites. Sadr mounted two major uprisings against the American-led coalition in 2004 when US authorities closed his newspaper and pushed an Iraqi judge into issuing an arrest warrant against him.
Sheikh Abdul-Razaq Nidawi, the manager of Sadr’s office in Diwaniyah, told the Associated Press that trouble had been brewing since Saturday night when the army arrested a Sadr supporter from the Jumhouri neighbourhood.
On Sunday, the army raided the same place and â€œa gunfight erupted between them and the Mehdi Army,â€ Nidawi said.
Army Capt. Fatik Aied said gunbattles broke out at about 11:00pm Sunday south of Diwaniyah, when Iraqi soldiers conducted raids in three neighbourhoods to flush out fighters and seize weapons.
Nidawi said â€œa big force of the army raided Jumhouri, Sadr and Askouri neighbourhoods and clashes broke out [again] between the army and the Mehdi Army.â€ He said the raids took place early Monday.
Lt. Col. Dariusz Kacperczyk, a Polish military spokesman for the area, said clashes initially occurred on Saturday night after a rocket attack on a Polish-run base earlier in the day, and then began again on Sunday night.
The US-led military command in Baghdad said trouble began at about midnight on Sunday when Iraqi police and soldiers went to check on reports of a gathering in the city.
Fighting continued for most of the day, as the army brought in extra troops from other cities to reinforce its soldiers, said Brig. Gen. Othman Farhoud, commander of the 8th Iraqi Army Division.
By evening, the group had set up road checkpoints and taken over seven neighbourhoods in the south and east of the city, while the Iraqi army was controlling the northern and western parts, said Capt. Aied of the Iraqi army.
The US-led military command said in its statement that the Iraqi army and police â€œsuccessfully fended off an attack by a large group of terroristsâ€ in three districts of Diwaniyah after a 12-hour battle.
Dr Mohammed Abdul-Muhsen of the city’s general hospital said 40 people had been killed â€” 25 Iraqi soldiers, 10 civilians and five fighters. He said the hospital treated 75 wounded, but could not immediately give a breakdown.
Aied said the fighters used rocket-propelled grenades and automatic assault rifles, and that at least 10 men were arrested.
An indefinite vehicle ban was imposed in the city, said Adnan Abdu-Kadhim, a member of the provincial council.
Coalition forces were not involved in the fighting, but provided support with an aerial quick reaction force, using military helicopters as a show of force and to prevent possible attacks from rooftops, Kacperczyk said. Coalition quick reaction forces were also patrolling near the city, he said.
One Polish helicopter was hit by small arms fire but was able to land safely at the nearby base, the US-led military command said.
In the capital, a suicide car bomber slammed into a police checkpoint outside the interior ministry. The blast could be heard more than one mile away, and smoke could be seen rising from the scene. The blast killed 16 people, including 10 policemen, Police 1st Lt. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said. He said 18 policemen were among the 47 people wounded.
Elsewhere in the capital, a suicide car bomber struck a queue of cars waiting at a gas station in the southern neighbourhood of Dora, killing three civilians and injuring 15, Lt. Ahmed Hameed of the national police said.
Earlier, a roadside bomb in the mainly Sunni western neighbourhood of Jihad struck a car transporting five barber shop workers. One person was killed and another four were seriously wounded, police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razzaq said.
Monday’s violence came a day after Iraq saw a string of bombings and shooting across the country that left about 60 people dead. In one of the deadliest attacks, a group of assailants opened fire at an open-air night market in Khalis, a mostly Shiite town 80 kilometres north of Baghdad, killing 23 people and wounding 25, the town’s hospital and police said.