DIWANIYAH, Iraq -- Shi'ite militiamen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic assault rifles battled Iraqi forces for 12 hours yesterday, leaving at least 40 people dead, most soldiers.
The fighting in this southern city dominated a bloody day that saw at least 60 people killed across Iraq. About 20 died in attacks in Baghdad, including 16 in a suicide bombing that targeted the Interior Ministry complex.
The violence underlined the Shi'ite-led government's difficulties as it tries to rein in the violent sectarian forces of an anti-US cleric.
The US military announced that nine US soldiers were killed over the weekend in and around Baghdad, eight by roadside bombs and one by gunfire.
Dr. Mohammed Abdul-Muhsen of the city's general hospital said the 40 people killed in Diwaniyah included 25 Iraqi soldiers, 10 civilians, and five militiamen. He said the hospital treated 75 wounded.
Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, is a Shi'ite-dominated city where the influence of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has been gradually increasing. The militia already runs a virtual parallel government in Sadr City, a slum in eastern Baghdad.
But the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, 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 Shi'ite alliance that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Many Sunnis have expressed disappointment that Maliki's government has not moved to curb Shi'ite militias, especially the Mahdi Army. A prominent hard-line Iraqi Sunni cleric, Harith al-Dhari, said Friday he was willing to meet with top Shi'ite religious leaders, part of an initiative to curb sectarian violence -- but also to press Shi'ite leaders into a response.
American forces also have been wary of confronting the militia, because of Sadr's clout over the government and his large following among majority Shi'ites. 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 al-Nidawi, the manager of Sadr's office in Diwaniyah, said that trouble had been brewing since Saturday night when the Iraqi Army arrested a Sadr supporter from the Jumhouri neighborhood. On Sunday, the army raided the same place and ``a gunfight erupted between them and the Mahdi Army," Nidawi said.
Army Captain Fatik Aied said gunbattles broke out at about 11 p.m. Sunday south of Diwaniyah, when Iraqi soldiers conducted raids in three neighborhoods to flush out militiamen and seize weapons.
Nidawi said ``a big force of the army raided Jumhouri, Sadr and Askouri neighborhoods and clashes broke out [again] between the army and the Mahdi Army." He said the raids took place early yesterday.
Fighting continued for most of the day, as the army brought in extra troops from other cities to reinforce its soldiers, said Brigadier General Othman al-Farhoud, commander of the Eighth Iraqi Army Division.
By evening, the militia had set up road checkpoints and taken over seven neighborhoods in the south and east of the city, while the Iraqi Army was controlling the northern and western parts, Aied said.
Late yesterday, the US-led military command issued a statement in Baghdad that the Iraqi Army and police ``successfully fended off an attack by a large group of terrorists" in three districts of Diwaniyah after a 12-hour battle.
Since the three districts in contention are in the city's south, it was not immediately clear how to reconcile the US statement with that of Aied, the Iraqi Army captain.
Aied said the militiamen used rocket propelled-grenades and automatic assault rifles, and that at least 10 militiamen 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.
In the capital, a suicide car bomber slammed into a police checkpoint outside the Interior Ministry at midmorning, when traffic is usually heavy. The blast could be heard more than a mile away, and smoke could be seen rising .
The blast killed 16 people, including 10 policemen, police Lieutenant Ahmed Mohammed Ali said. He said 18 police were among the 47 people wounded.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, a suicide car bomber struck a line of cars waiting at a gas station in the southern neighborhood of Dora, killing three civilians and wounding 15, Lieutenant Ahmed Hameeed of the national police said.
Earlier in the day, a roadside bomb in the mainly Sunni western neighborhood of Jihad struck a car transporting five barber shop workers. One person was killed and another four were seriously wounded.