U.S. and coalition forces fought a fierce battle south of Baghdad early Monday with members of a secret cell network that is believed to be supplying insurgents with explosives and other resources from Iran. Iraqi police and hospital officials said 36 people were killed in the violence.
More than 100 people were injured in the fighting in Amarah, the officials said. At least three of those killed were Iraqi policemen, they said.
The violence came as military officials said U.S. and Iraqi forces had begun major military operations north and south of Baghdad.
An official in the office of Iraq's national security adviser said operations also had been launched near Fallujah and in Diyala province.
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the multi-national forces in Iraq, said the operation targeted a secret cell network that is supplying insurgents with EFP's (Explosively-Formed Penetrators) and other resources from Iran.
A doctor at Amarah's general hospital said 36 bodies had been taken to his facility. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.
The U.S. military released a statement saying at least 20 insurgents had been killed and six wounded in coalition operations targeting "secret cells" in Amarah. Another suspect was detained, it said.
The men were believed to be members of a terror network that imports deadly armor-piercing weapons made in Iran known as EFPs, the statement said. They also were suspected of bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terror training, it added.
Coalition forces came under small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks during the raids, and called in air support, the military said. The suspects were killed by fire from aircraft, it said.
The U.S. statement did not specify whether the coalition troops were American or British.
Iraqi police said the Mahdi Army, the militia commanded by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was involved in the clashes, which lasted for about two hours before dawn.
Amarah, located 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, is the provincial capital of Maysan province, a predominantly Shiite region that borders Iran. Iraqi forces took over control of security from British troops there in April.
The city has seen intense militia fighting, most recently in October 2006, when the Mahdi Army briefly took control of the city and fought prolonged gun battles with local police. At the time, Amarah's police force was believed to be dominated by a rival militia, the Badr Brigades. More than 30 people were killed in the standoff.
In other developments:
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the operation as targeting Shiite militiamen, rather than secret cell networks. The earlier report also said British soldiers were invovled in the firefight, when mainly U.S. and coalition forces did the fighting.