BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi forces, backed by Polish army helicopters, swept through Shiite militia strongholds south of Baghdad on Saturday, rounding up dozens of militants and killing two. The prime minister met with the provincial governor, who called for reinforcements to root out "the criminals."
Iraqi police said 30 suspected fighters linked to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army were grabbed in a pre-dawn house-to-house search by U.S. and Iraqi raiders in two eastern neighborhoods in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.
Rival Shiite militias are trying to grab power in the oil-rich south of the country as British forces are drawing down. But U.S. commanders have reported significant inroads against both Shiite militias and al-Qaida fighters across the fertile agriculture belt nearer the capital. They credit local residents, emboldened against the terror tactics of both al-Qaida and Shiite militants, with much of the success.
The residents have bought into a trend that started in Iraq's western Anbar province, where Sunni tribesmen rose up against al-Qaida and have methodically hunted them down in conjunction with U.S. forces.
South of the capital, Shiite militiamen are facing the same onslaught in communities where they have terrorized co-religionists.
On Diwaniyah's east side, U.S.-led ground forces backed by two Polish army helicopters came under fire from machine guns and an anti-tank grenade launcher, the military said.
Coalition forces reported no casualties but said two militants were killed in the sweep. The statement reporting the operation said the Polish helicopters were called in after ground forces were attacked with three roadside bombs and small-arms fire.
The governor of the Qadisiyah province, which includes Diwaniyah, met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad on Saturday to ask for help boosting security in the region.
Gov. Hamid al-Khudhari dismissed concerns of rising tensions between al-Sadr's group and the governor's party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, whose militia is known as the Badr Brigade. Al-Khudari replaced Gov. Mohammad al-Hassani, who was assassinated by a powerful roadside bomb in August. Mahdi Army militants were suspected in the attack.
"There have been outlawed armed groups trying to take control of the province for a long time," he said at a news conference after the meeting. "They are only criminals and we do not believe that there is political party that backs them."
Al-Sadr and SIIC leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim signed a truce earlier this month. Al-Khudari appeared at pains to give the impression that the cease-fire was holding, and that Shiite fighters involved in the turmoil had broken with al-Sadr.
"We do have problems in the local security forces that make it difficult to ensure security and we asked the prime minister to fill the gaps in this regard," he said without elaborating.
Police also clashed with gunmen in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, during a raid in which they detained a Sadrist leader, local authorities said without identifying the suspect.
Late Saturday, a mortar crashed near the Shiite shrine to Imam Al-Abbas in Karbala, killing one person and wounding two, according to police and an Associated Press employee who was at the scene.
To the north of Diwaniyah, police broke into the house of a leading al-Qaida member in a village near Hillah. They captured Raed al-Alwani, who was wanted in the slayings of more than 100 Iraqis, according to a police officer in the region who spoke on condition of anonymity because he not authorized to release the information.
In all, at least 26 people were reported killed or found dead in attacks nationwide.
The U.S. military also announced that a U.S. soldier was killed and eight others wounded in a roadside bombing in eastern Baghdad on Thursday.
Near Baghdad, a roadside bomb hit a minibus full of Shiite civilians traveling to visit relatives south of the capital. Three passengers died and nine were wounded, police said.
The U.S. military said it killed one al-Qaida leader and detained three other members of the group Saturday morning during raids in the dangerous Dora neighborhood of south Baghdad. It also announced capturing what it termed four high-ranking militia leaders during Oct. 12-14 operations in near Iskandariyah, 30 miles from the capital. Use of the word militia indicated the men were rogue members of the Mahdi Army.
In the far north of Iraq, where Turkey is threatening to invade the autonomous Kurdish region to attack guerrilla camps of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, rebel leader Murat Karayilan threatened to strike back by blowing up an oil pipeline running into Turkey.
"When Turkey starts a military operation against our bases, we will defend ourselves by targeting economic sites and one of our options is to hit the oil pipeline going from Kurdistan to Turkey," Karayilan said.
An estimated 15,000 Kurds, meanwhile, packed the streets of the border city of Zakho in northern Iraq to protest the Turkish threat and to warn they would defend their territory.
The protesters in Zakho waved the sunburst flag of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region and unfurled banners reading: "No, no to the Turkish military incursion. Yes, yes to peace and security."
Kurdish rebel fighters operating from bases in the mountains of northern Iraq periodically cross the border to stage attacks in their war to win autonomy for Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Contributing: Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah