60 Shiite militants killed or captured in Iraqi city: officials

DIWANIYAH - More than 60 Shiite militants have been killed or captured in deadly battle with Iraqi and US forces in the central city of Diwaniyah, military officials said on Monday.

Since Friday, around 3,300 US and Iraqi troops have clashed with Shiite militants, largely believed to be from the Mahdi Army militia controlled by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad.

Polish Major General Pawel Lamla, a commanding general for US-led multinational forces, told a group of reporters in Diwaniyah that security forces had "killed or captured more than 60 of the terrorists."

US commander Colonel Michael Garrett said the fighters appeared to be from the Jaish al-Mahdi, the Arabic name for Mahdi Army.

"We believe they are associated with the Jaish al-Mahdi," Garrett said.

"I don't know enough to know if this is a splinter group or how committed they are to Jaish al-Mahdi. But it doesn't necessarily appear to be a splinter group. It appears to be an organised resistance."

Since fighting broke out between the militiamen and security forces on Friday, the US military said it was an operation aimed at returning control of Diwaniyah to the Iraqi government.

In the past year, Diwaniyah has turned into a battlefied for rival Shiite militias fighting for supremacy.

Garrett suggested the operation was reasonably successful.

"I guess from zero to a hundred percent in terms of results of our operation. Today, I will put us at about the 60 to 70 percent range in terms of the targets that we had available to us," he said.

Iraqi commander Major General Othman Ali Farhood said many of the detainees were found holding multiple identification cards.

"Some were found carrying many identifications, nine or 10 identification cards or passports," Farhood said, adding that one of the detainees could also be a Palestinian.

But he explained that many Iraqis carried "two identification cards in two provinces and also carry three or four identifications from different ministries", for their own protection from sectarian death squads.

Garrett said all the detainees were Iraqis and mostly from Diwaniyah but there "are accusations that some are from outside the province."

Lamla said that Operation Black Eagle launched in Diwaniyah was an extension of the broader Baghdad security plan that has been underway in the capital since February.

"The security of one state directly affects the security in others," he said.

"The new security plan began in Baghdad but it is a national plan. It will be implemented in Iraq as you can see from the progress being made here."

Lamla also indicated that some of the fighters in Diwaniyah were from Baghdad.

Since the start of the Baghdad crackdown, US and Iraqi military officials say Mahdi Army fighters have melted away in other provinces following orders from Sadr himself.

04/09/2007 13:15 GMT

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