Seven Iraqi police officers were killed in a roadside bomb blast in a southern province, police said Wednesday.
A senior official, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, said the attackers were members of a criminal gang and suggested that they once had claimed ties to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
Sadr declared a freeze on militia operations in August after a clash in Karbala with a rival Shiite faction left at least 50 people dead. Since then, Khalaf said, some gunmen who had identified themselves with the Mahdi Army can no longer use it as a cover.
“Now they are acting on their own,” he said.
Khalaf said security forces were planning to confront these gangs, starting in the city of Diwaniya, where there have been several violent clashes in recent months. Iraqi police and soldiers met with Polish troops Tuesday to discuss ways to tame the violence in the city, 95 miles south of Baghdad.
The deaths of the police officers came after five civilians were killed and 20 wounded Monday in clashes between Shiite militants and soldiers in Diwaniya.
Two previously unknown Shiite militant groups, the Imam Hussein Brigades and Imam Musa al Kadhim Brigades, have claimed responsibility for a roadside attack this month in Baghdad against the Polish ambassador and a second car bombing near the Polish Embassy, according to a video statement obtained Sunday by Reuters news service. The groups said the attacks were in response to a string of killings and arrests by the Polish troops in Diwaniya. An estimated 900 Polish troops are stationed in Qadisiya province, of which Diwaniya is the capital.
One resident speaking on condition of anonymity said the two brigades were spearheading violence in Diwaniya. The groups’ members are area residents, some of whom have been linked to drug-dealing and prostitution rings, the resident said.
He said the militants used to carry out their activities under the Mahdi Army name until the militia broke with them in the last few months.
“They were saying they were Mahdi Army but they were just thugs and criminals,” the resident said. “Now they can’t use that name, so they are calling themselves the Imam Musa al Kadhim and Hussein Brigades.”
He said that the Mahdi Army was comparatively weak in the area and that the new factions were behind recent violence in Diwaniya, including the assassination in August of the province’s governor.
Meanwhile, a suicide truck bombing killed a Kurdish security guard and wounded 10 people in northeastern Diyala province, police said. The province, just north and east of Baghdad, has a mix of Arabs and Kurds.
The U.S. military reported the death of a soldier Sunday by small-arms fire south of Baghdad. At least 3,829 American troops have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to the website icasualties.org.
The body of a police officer kidnapped three days earlier was found in Hawija, east of the northern oil city of Kirkuk.
Times staff writers Wail Alhafith, Raheem Salman and Saif Rasheed, and special correspondent Maha Khateeb contributed to this report