US military in violent clashes with Shia militants
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Fighting between Shia militants and US forces in Sadr City left at least twenty people dead, days ahead of an April 9 anti-US protest called by Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Fierce clashes between Shiite gunmen and US forces in the Iraqi capital's Sadr City district killed at least 20 people on Sunday, amid calls from Iraqi leaders for all militias to be disbanded.
In northern Iraq, meanwhile, Iraq's security forces freed 42 university students who had been kidnapped by gunmen, a local army commander said.
Officials from Iraq's security and defence ministries said women and children were among the dead and 52 wounded in the Sadr City clashes that broke out at around midnight and continued sporadically through the day.
The US military said it carried out an air strike in Sadr City at around 8:00 am (0500 GMT) in which nine "criminals" were killed.
Hospital officials said most of the dead and wounded had suffered gunshot wounds.
An AFP photographer on the scene said a US helicopter fired two missiles into Sadr City, bastion of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, at around 11:00 am but the military did not immediately confirm a second air strike.
The clashes came days before a protest on April 9 in Sadr City called by Sadr against the presence of US forces in Iraq. The protest coincides with the fifth anniversary of the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein's regime.
Sadr's office says it expects at least one million people to turn out for the protest.
US commanders have previously said their forces were targeting "criminals" firing mortars and rockets from Sadr City into Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, seat of the Iraqi government and the US embassy.
Shiite fighters, mostly from Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, have been clashing with security forces since March 25 after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on militiamen in the southern city of Basra.
The military assaults triggered firefights across Shiite areas of Iraq, including Sadr City, that killed at least 700 people, according to the United Nations.
The clashes eased after Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets but sporadic firefights continue, especially in Sadr City.
Iraq's political leaders, meanwhile, urged the disbanding of militias throughout the country in a move seen as pressuring Sadr to rein in his fighters ahead of provincial elections on October 1.
Members of the top-level Political Council of National Security met at President Jalal Talabani's office on Saturday and framed a 15-point statement aimed at disarming the militias, most of them aligned to political parties.
The council comprises the president, the prime minister and the heads of the various political blocs.
"The militias should be integrated into civilian activities as a condition for participating in the political process and the next elections," Talabani's office said in a statement.
Sadr boasts the most powerful militia with an estimated 60,000 fighters.
Washington has campaigned for the dismantling of Iraqi militias and the Pentagon in 2006 had said the Mahdi Army was a bigger threat to the country's stability than Al-Qaeda.
Observers say that with the elections to be held on October 1 in Iraq's 18 provinces, Maliki was under pressure to rein in the militias, especially in Basra where rival Shiite factions are engaged in an intense turf war.
Another powerful Shiite group, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, which commands a Badr Brigade militia, the Sadr group and the smaller Fadhila Party are locked in a three-way power struggle to control the oil rich Shiite city of some 1.6 million people.
Also on Sunday, Iraq's security forces freed 42 university students hours after they were kidnapped by gunmen near the northern city of Mosul, a local army commander told AFP.
The students were kidnapped when gunmen ambushed two buses ferrying them to Mosul from their homes in Shurkat, 70 kilometres (40 miles) south of the country's main northern city.
Brigadier General Khalid Abul Sattar, spokesman for Mosul's security plan, said the hostages were freed by local security forces. Details of the operation would be made public later in the day.
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