34 killed, dozens injured in clashes in Iraq

Another 34 people were killed and dozens more injured in clashes between Shiite militiamen loyal to a popular cleric and Iraqi tpolice helped by the U.S. troops in the southern city of Diwaniyah, officials said Monday.

The fighting broke out at about 11 p.m. Sunday when Iraqi soldiers conducted raids in three neighborhoods to flush out the militiamen and seize weapons, said army Capt. Fatik Aied.

The fighting continued Monday, he said, adding that U.S. forces came to the Iraqi army's aid on Monday to repel attacks by militiamen of the Mahdi Army, which is loyal to the radical, anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Dr. Mohammed Abdul-Muhsen of the city's general hospital said 34 bodies were brought in - 25 Iraqi soldiers, seven civilians and two militiamen. He said at least 70 people were injured, but could not immediately give a breakdown, AP reports.

Fatik said the militiamen were using rocket propelled grenades and automatic assault rifles. At least 10 militiamen have been arrested so far, he said.

Diwaniyah, 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Baghdad, is a Shiite dominated city where the influence of Mahdi Army has been gradually increasing. It already runs a virtual parallel government in Sadr City, a slum in eastern Baghdad.

But the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has found it difficult to rein in al-Sadr, whose movement holds 30 of the 275 seats in parliament and five Cabinet posts.

Al-Sadr's backing also helped al-Maliki win the top job during painstaking negotiations within the Shiite alliance that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Al-Sadr mounted two major uprisings against the American-led coalition in 2004 when U.S. authorities closed his newspaper and pushed an Iraqi judge into issuing an arrest warrant against him.

But American forces have also been wary of confronting the Mahdi Army because of al-Sadr's clout over the government and his large following among Shiites, who are in a majority in Iraq.