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Shiite Militia Clashes With Troops Following Violent Weekend in Iraq

By Damien Cave
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BAGHDAD, IRAQ

At least 20 gunmen and eight civilians were killed when the Iraqi army battled fiercely for hours Monday with members of a militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, in the southern city of Diwaniyah, Iraqi officials said.

The violence, which one Iraqi general said included militiamen executing Iraqi soldiers in a public square, amounted to the most brazen clashes in recent memory between Iraqi government forces and al-Sadr’s militia. After weeks of rising tensions and skirmishes between elements of the militia and U.S.-led forces, it could increase pressure on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a conservative Shiite, to find a way, whether political or military or both, to quickly rein in al-Sadr’s powerful militia.

The battle erupted after a particularly violent weekend in Iraq for both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, in what had been a relatively quiet month.

The U.S. military announced on Monday the deaths of nine American service members in attacks on Sunday. In Baghdad, a car bomb killed at least 13 people on Monday and wounded dozens at a checkpoint just outside the Interior Ministry headquarters.

With sectarian violence soaring, U.S. generals and the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, say that militias are now the single greatest threat to the stability of Iraq and that the Iraqi government must move urgently to disband them.

But al-Maliki has yet to introduce any new policy and has refrained from strong condemnations of al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. Al-Maliki relies on al-Sadr, who is enormously popular among poor Shiites, for political support against rival Shiite politicians. Al-Sadr controls at least 30 seats in the Parliament and several ministries, and he maintains close ties to al-Maliki’s political group, the Islamic Dawa Party.

Earlier this month, after the Americans called in air support during a raid with Iraqi forces in a Sadr stronghold in Baghdad, al-Maliki denounced the move by the Americans and said he had never given permission for it.