KUT, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi police arrested dozens of members of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia on Saturday, hours after two policemen were killed in gunbattles in the southern city of Kut, police said.
Clashes this week between Iraqi security forces and the militia in Kut, 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Baghdad, have raised fears a ceasefire called by Sadr may unravel, although the violence has so far been confined to Kut.
It is the first major violation of the seven-month-old truce, which has been credited by the U.S. military with helping to reduce violence between majority Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Sadr clarified the conditions of the truce last week, telling followers they could defend themselves if attacked, an apparent response to complaints among his fighters that U.S. and Iraqi forces were exploiting the ceasefire to target them.
“This operation started in the early morning and so far we have arrested 25 wanted people from the Mehdi Army,” said Lieutenant Aziz al-Amara, who commands a rapid reaction unit.
Another police official, who declined to be named, said 70 people had been detained. There was a heavy presence of Iraqi and U.S. forces in the city. U.S. military spokesmen have given few details about their involvement in the clashes.
Police say at least 13 people have been killed in fighting since Tuesday.
Separately, the U.S. military said eight Iraqi civilians were wounded in a rocket attack on a U.S. facility in Hilla, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, late on Friday which Iraqi police blamed on an unspecified Shi’ite militia.
Hilla police chief Brigadier-General Fadhil al-Sultani said a suspect had been arrested after the attack, which damaged three homes and a school.
The latest outbreak of violence in Kut took place on Friday night when police tried to enter two neighbourhoods in Kut where there is a strong Mehdi Army presence. Clashes erupted and residents reported the sound of gunfire and explosions.
Amara said two policemen were killed and eight wounded on Friday, six of whom were in a serious condition and had to be transferred to the local U.S. military base for treatment.
A U.S. military spokeswoman said U.S. forces were aware of three policemen being wounded in fighting involving small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
A mortar attack early on Saturday wounded six people, including three members of the same family, Kut police said.
Sadrists have sought to distance themselves from the fighting. Luwaa Sumaisem, a senior aide to Sadr, denied members of the Mehdi Army were involved in Friday night’s clashes.
“Mehdi Army didn’t intervene in the clashes and everyone in their houses are following the order of Moqtada al-Sadr,” he told Reuters in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf.
The fighting in Kut comes amid an upsurge in attacks in Iraq since January, although overall levels of violence are down since last year.
The U.S. military said a suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives killed an interpreter and wounded two U.S. soldiers as he tried to cross the Iraq-Syria border in northwestern Nineveh province on Friday.
The military says al Qaeda foreign fighters cross into Nineveh from Syria to carry out suicide attacks. U.S. forces have launched a campaign to wipe out al Qaeda in four northern Iraqi provinces.