DIWANIYAH, Iraq (AP) _ Shiite militiamen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic assault rifles battled Iraqi forces for 12 hours Monday, leaving at least 40 people dead, most soldiers, and underlining the Shiite-led government's difficulties as it tries to rein in the violent sectarian forces of an anti-U.S. cleric.
The fighting in this southern city dominated a bloody day that saw at least 20 other people killed in Baghdad, including 16 in a suicide bombing targeting the Interior Ministry complex. The U.S. military announced that nine U.S. soldiers were killed over the weekend in and around Baghdad, eight by roadside bombs and one by gunfire.
Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, is a Shiite-dominated city where the influence of firebrand cleric Muqtada 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 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.
Many Sunnis have expressed disappointment that al-Maliki's government has not moved to curb Shiite militias, especially the Mahdi Army. A prominent hard-line Iraqi Sunni cleric, Harith al-Dhari, said Friday he was willing to meet with top Shiite religious leaders, part of an initiative to curb sectarian violence _ but also to press Shiite leaders into a response.
American forces also have been wary of confronting the militia, because of al-Sadr's clout over the government and his large following among majority Shiites. 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.
Sheikh Abdul-Razaq al-Nidawi, the manager of al-Sadr's office in Diwaniyah, told The Associated Press that trouble had been brewing since Saturday night when the Iraqi army arrested an al-Sadr supporter from the Jumhouri neighborhood.
On Sunday, the army raided the same place and ``a gunfight erupted between them and the Mahdi Army,'' al-Nidawi said.
Army Capt. 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.
Al-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 Monday.
Fighting continued for most of the day, as the army brought in extra troops from other cities to reinforce its soldiers, said Brig. Gen. Othman al-Farhoud, commander of the 8th 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 Monday, the U.S.-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 U.S. statement with that of Aied, the Iraqi army captain.
Dr. Mohammed Abdul-Muhsen of the city's general hospital said 40 people had been killed _ 25 Iraqi soldiers, 10 civilians and five militiamen. He said the hospital treated 75 wounded, but could not immediately give a breakdown.
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, said Lt. Col. Dariusz Kacperczyk, a Polish military spokesman for the area. Coalition quick reaction forces also were patrolling near the city, he said.
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 from the scene. The blast killed 16 people, including 10 policemen, Police 1st Lt. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said. He said 18 policemen 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, Lt. 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, police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razzaq said.