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U.S. troops clash with Shiite militiamen
U.S. troops clashed with Shiite militiamen south of Baghdad on Saturday in a three-hour gunbattle in which 15 gunmen and an Iraqi soldier were killed, U.S. officials and Iraqis said.
Dozens were wounded in the firefight in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad. It appeared the battle was part of a systematic campaign against the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, blamed for much of the sectarian violence sweeping the country.
Sheik Jalil al-Nouri, an aide to al-Sadr, said U.S. troops attacked the cleric's local office in Musayyib and killed 14 of his followers. A U.S. statement said 15 gunmen and one Iraqi soldier were killed but made no mention of the Mahdi militia.
According to the U.S. account, the firefight began when gunmen attacked a U.S.-Iraqi patrol with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire near a Shiite mosque. One militiaman was killed in the initial exchange of fire.
A U.S. helicopter destroyed a fuel truck believed rigged with explosives as it approached an American position, the statement said.
Gunmen repeatedly attacked the U.S. and Iraqi force, the U.S. statement said.
After about three hours of fighting, an Iraqi SWAT team entered a Shiite mosque from which the gunmen were firing and the clashes died down, the statement said.
Raids against followers of al-Sadr have been increasing in the past few weeks in the Baghdad area and southern regions. Last weekend, British troops arrested the Mahdi Army commander in Basra, where militias are believed to have infiltrated the police force.