BAGHDAD, Iraq – Violence in Iraq left nearly 50 people dead Monday in a homicide car bombing and clashes between Shiite militia and Iraqi security forces, a brutal contradiction of the prime minister's claim that bloodshed was decreasing.
The deaths followed a day of bombings and shootings on Sunday, when more than 60 people were killed across the country, from the northern city of Kirkuk to the capital Baghdad and down to the south in Basra.
The dead included five American soldiers, all killed by roadside bombs on Sunday in the Baghdad area according to the U.S. military.
In the city of Diwaniyah, gunbattles between Iraqi forces and militiamen of the Mahdi Army loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr left at least 34 people dead and about 70 wounded, Iraqi officials said.
The fighting broke out late Sunday night when Iraqi soldiers conducted raids in three neighborhoods to flush out the militiamen and seize weapons, said army Capt. Fatik Aied.
He said the fighting continued Monday.
Dr. Mohammed Abdul-Muhsen of the city's general hospital said 34 bodies were brought in — 25 Iraqi soldiers, seven civilians and two militiamen. He said at least 70 people were injured, but could not immediately give a breakdown.
Fatik said the militiamen were using rocket-propelled grenades and automatic assault rifles. At least 10 militiamen had been arrested, he said.
Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, is a Shiite-dominated city where the influence of Mahdi Army has been gradually increasing. It 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.
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.
But American forces have also been wary of confronting the Mahdi Army because of al-Sadr's clout over the government and his large following among Shiites, who are in a majority in Iraq.
Some 10,000 Iraqis have been killed in the last four months alone in unrelenting attacks by Sunni and Shiite extremists on each other's communities, as well as bombings and shootings by Sunni Arab insurgents.
In Baghdad, a car homicide bomber slammed into a police checkpoint outside the Interior Ministry in midmorning Monday, when traffic is usually heavy. The blast could be heard a mile away, and smoke could be seen rising from the scene. The blast killed 14 people, including eight policemen, police 1st Lt. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said. He said 17 policemen were among the wounded.
Elsewhere in the capital, a roadside bomb in the mainly Sunni western neighborhood of Jihad struck a car transporting five barbershop workers killed one person and seriously wounded another four, police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razzaq said.
The renewed violence undercut Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's claim that government forces were prevailing over insurgents and sectarian extremists.
"We're not in a civil war. Iraq will never be in a civil war," he said in a television interview Sunday. "The violence is in decrease and our security ability is increasing."
His statement came on a day when Iraq saw a string of bombings and shooting across the country. In one of the deadliest attacks, a group of assailants in three cars opened fire at an open-air night market in Khalis, a mostly Shiite town 50 miles north of Baghdad, killing 23 people and wounding 25 others, the town's hospital and police said.
A suicide bomber on a minibus near the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad killed eight civilians and wounded 18, the Iraqi government said, while two back-to-back suicide car bombings in the northern city of Kirkuk killed nine people hours after another suicide car bomb killed one person.
In Basra, Iraq's second largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, a motorcycle bomb at a night market Sunday killed four people and wounded 15, the governor's office said.