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US, Iraqi Forces Detain Militia Fighters

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By STEVEN R. HURST
The Associated Press
Sunday, October 21, 2007; 1:21 AM

BAGHDAD -- U.S. and Iraqi forces, backed by Polish army helicopters, swept through Shiite militia strongholds south of Baghdad on Saturday, rounding up dozens of militants and killing two. The prime minister met the provincial governor, who called for reinforcements to root out "the criminals."

Iraqi police said 30 suspected fighters linked to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army were grabbed in a pre-dawn house-to-house search by U.S. and Iraqi raiders in two eastern neighborhoods in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.

Rival Shiite militias are engaged in grabs for power in the oil-rich south of the country, as British forces are drawing down. But U.S. commanders have reported significant inroads against both Shiite militias and al-Qaida in Iraq fighters across the fertile agriculture belt nearer to the capital. They credit local residents, emboldened against the terror tactics of both al-Qaida and Shiite militants, with much of the success.

The residents have bought into a trend that started in Iraq's western Anbar province, where Sunni tribesmen rose up against al-Qaida and have methodically hunted them down in conjunction with U.S. forces.

South of the capital, Shiite militiamen are facing the same onslaught in communities where they have terrorized co-religionists.

On Diwaniyah's east side, U.S.-led ground forces backed by two Polish army helicopters came under fire from machine guns and an anti-tank grenade launcher, the military said.

Coalition forces reported no casualties but said two militants were killed in the sweep. The statement reporting the operation said the Polish helicopters were called in after ground forces were attacked with three roadside bombs and small-arms fire.

The governor of the Qadisiyah province, which includes Diwaniyah, met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad on Saturday to ask for help boosting security in the region.

Gov. Hamid al-Khudhari dismissed concerns of rising tensions between al-Sadr's group and the governor's party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, whose militia is known as the Badr Brigade. Al-Khudari replaced Gov. Mohammad al-Hassani, who was assassinated by a powerful roadside bomb in August. Mahdi Army militants were suspected in the attack.

"There have been outlawed armed groups trying to take control of the province for a long time," he said at a news conference after the meeting. "They are only criminals and we do not believe that there is political party that backs them."

Al-Sadr and SIIC leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim signed a truce earlier this month. Al-Khudari appeared at pains to give the impression that the cease-fire was holding, and that Shiite fighters involved in the turmoil had broken with al-Sadr.

"We do have problems in the local security forces that make it difficult to ensure security and we asked the prime minister to fill the gaps in this regard," he said without elaborating.


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© 2007 The Associated Press

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