BAGHDAD, Iraq – A fierce battle between police and militia gunmen northeast of Baghdad Thursday left 30 people dead and 42 wounded, a police official said.
The new violence came as the U.S. military announced the deaths of five servicemen killed in action in Anbar province on Wednesday.
The gunmen fighting police in the city of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of the capital, were believed to be members of the Mahdi Army militia, loyal to hard-line anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said Ghassan al-Bawi, police chief of surrounding Diyala province. The dead included 12 police officers and 18 militants, he said.
In Najaf, one of the country's most important Shiite Muslim shrines was closed following reports it may be targeted by homicide bombers.
Witnesses said streets around the Imam Ali mosque were blocked off and the shrine itself was sealed to visitors after security officials said they had intelligence that the city had been infiltrated by two bombers who had wrapped themselves in explosives.
The U.S. casualties included a sailor assigned to the 3rd Naval Construction Regiment. Two of the Marines were attached to Regimental Combat Team 5, and two others to Regimental Combat Team 7. All died from wounds suffered in attacks in Anbar on Wednesday, military officials said.
The western Iraqi province, which includes the embattled cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, has posed the greatest — and deadliest — challenge for U.S. forces fighting in Iraq. Thirty-three U.S. military personnel died there in August, officials said.
U.S. intelligence reports describe Anbar as virtually lawless, with well-armed Al Qaeda-backed insurgents filling the political vacuum.
President Bush cited Anbar province in a press conference on Wednesday, calling it one of the biggest challenges to U.S. and Iraqi military forces, and a key battleground in the fight against terrorism.
The deaths brought to 96 the number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq this month. The highest monthly death toll was in January 2005, when 107 U.S. troops were killed.
U.S. officials said October's high death toll is linked to a historical spike in violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended this week, as well as an increase in patrols and other military operations as part of an intensified drive to secure Baghdad.
Mahdi militiamen have recently flooded into the area 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, forcing large numbers of residents belonging to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority to flee their homes. Mahdi fighters killed scores of Sunnis in massacres last week in the nearby city of Balad, forcing U.S. troops to return to the area after Iraqi security forces were unable to stem the bloodshed.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has come under criticism in the U.S. for failing to take decisive action to end the carnage, leading to signs of strain in his relationship with Washington.
Earlier this week fighting broke out between the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade-aligned police in the southern city Amarah in which 31 people were killed, including six police officers murdered by gunmen who stormed their homes.
In other violence Thursday, Iraqi police reported killing a suicide car bomber as he attempted to drive an explosives-packed car into a check point north of Baqouba.
And in the country's north, Sunni gunmen descended on mosques in Mosul distributing leaflets proclaiming the mixed Sunni-Kurdish area a part of an Islamic state declared earlier this month by an insurgent umbrella group, the Mujahedeen Shura Council.
No insurgent group holds enough power to enforce such a decree and the announcement of the Islamic state's formation has been viewed primarily as a propaganda ploy aimed at diminishing the U.S.-backed national government.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.