DIWANIYAH, Iraq (AFP)- Dozens of militants loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were arrested in a massive assault by US and Iraqi troops in the central city of Diwaniyah, officials said on Monday.
Iraqi security officials said that 3,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen supported by military tanks and hundreds of US and Polish troops launched the assault on Saturday to flush out Shiite militants from the city.
Hussain al-Buderi, a member of the Qadisiyah provincial council, said that 49 militants from the Sadr group, including four leaders, were arrested since the launch of “Operation Lion’s Leap”.
Witnesses said the city of more than one million people was under curfew and US aircraft were dropping leaflets urging locals to cooperate in locating militant hideouts.
Sadr’s office in the town of Nafar, south of Diwaniyah, was also raided on Monday as part of the crackdown, Buderi told AFP.
Diwaniyah’s police chief Major General Ali Akmoosh said the assault also led to the dismissal of 70 policemen, including some officers. “They have been dismissed for supporting armed gangs,” he told AFP.
Lawmakers from Sadr’s political bloc in the parliament called for immediate government intervention to stop the arrests, alleging gross human rights violations.
“Arresting the Sadrists means arresting the innocents,” said Fallal Hassan Chanchal, MP from Baghdad’s Sadr City, the bastion of Sadr loyalists in the Iraqi capital.
“Innocents are being arrested while outlaws have already fled.”
In the past year, Diwaniyah, capital of Qadisiyah, has seen an intense turf war between Sadr’s faction and another Shiite rival, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) led by powerful politician Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.
Iraq’s second largest city, Basra, is also witnessing a similar Shiite turf war, with several political factions fighting bitterly to control the vast oil reserves in the province.
On Monday, at least six people were killed, including three children, when a rocket slammed into a house in the town of Al-Qibla near Basra, police and a health official said.
“Three children, one woman and two men were killed in the attack,” Basra police Colonel Karim al-Zaidi told AFP, without saying if the attack was linked to the factional fighting.
Basra health department spokesman Kadhim Jawad also confirmed the casualties.
British military have withdrawn its forces from Basra city and now plan to hand over the province to Iraqi troops in December.
In another incidident, gunmen attacked a police station in Zaghaniyah, south of Baquba, killing three policemen, police Captain Hazim Yasin said from Baquba.
Baquba, the capital of Diyala, has seen an increase in violence in the past few weeks despite a series of US and Iraqi military assaults targeting Al-Qaeda fighters.
On Sunday, three American soldiers were killed in Baquba by a suicide bomber as they were distributing footballs and toys to children near a schoolyard, the US military said.
Major Peggy Kageleiry, spokeswoman for the military, said the soldiers were killed while they were walking among children in the restive city about 60 kilometres (35 miles) north of Baghdad.
“They were handing out soccer balls and stuffed animals to children next to a schoolyard when someone walked up and detonated himself,” she said.
“The only evidence of this we have so far is forensic,” she said, adding that army experts had found one of the dead was wearing a “suicide vest”.
On Monday, one person was killed and nine wounded when a roadside bomb went off near a bus carrying passengers in Al-Baladiyat neighbourhood of east Baghdad, a security official said.
An Iraqi translator who used to work for the US-led coalition forces in the city of Nasiriyah until a month ago was shot dead by gunmen on Monday, police Lieutenant Colonel Falah al-Siaidi.
The US military, meanwhile, announced its troops last week found the remains of five people at an execution site in Diyala.