BAGHDAD -- Sporadic shooting could be heard yesterday in the southern city of Samawah after violent clashes erupted between security forces and members of the Mahdi Army militia affiliated with anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The shootings killed two Iraqi police officers and injured 36 people, including Iraqi police and soldiers, said Dr. Saleh Abdul Hassan, manager of the Samawah health clinic. Government offices closed, security forces imposed a curfew and Iraqi forces could be seen taking sniper positions atop buildings, witnesses said.
Abdul Razzaq Zaidi, a neighborhood representative in Samawah, was hiding with his family at home, hesitant to emerge, though he said armed militants had left the area yesterday. "We hear shooting from time to time, but most of it is the shooting of the security forces," he said.
Many residents stayed inside, he said, unable to shop or scrounge for gas and kerosene, which are in short supply. "Life under the sanctions imposed on Iraq was better than the life these days in Samawah," Zaidi said.
Tribal sheik Abdul Kareem Khafaji said Mahdi Army gunmen were sticking to their stronghold in the Jumhoori neighborhood yesterday, across the Euphrates River from his home. "On the side of the river where I live, it is quiet," he said. "But on the other side of the river, shooting can be heard from time to time."
Khafaji said he and other tribal leaders have attempted to stop the spate of Mahdi Army violence by calling meetings with local officials, to no avail.
Samawah, the capital of Muthanna province, is about 145 miles southeast of Baghdad in a mainly Shiite Muslim area. Violence has erupted there several times in recent months, as well as in the city of Nasiriya about 50 miles to the east.
The latest outbreak followed an attempt on Wednesday by Mahdi Army members to visit Rumaitha, a town 20 miles north of Samawah, to inaugurate their new office, according to police. Iraqi security forces stopped the armed men before they entered the town and demanded they leave their weapons behind and pick them up as they left, police said. But the men refused and went to Samawah instead, where they gathered with about 150 supporters for a protest that led to clashes with police.
U.S. forces could be seen on the outskirts of the city yesterday, witnesses said. But British and Australian officials handed over security for Muthanna province to local Iraqi forces in July 2006. The city remains under Iraqi control.
In west Baghdad yesterday, the military announced that a U.S. soldier was killed during combat operations the day before.
The Iraqi government also announced yesterday that an al-Qaida militant was hanged Tuesday in connection with the August 2003 bombing that killed 85 people, including Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the leading Shiite groups.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.