RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to Iraq, where, after a relatively quiet month, violence and death have returned. Scores died yesterday, most of them during fighting between the Iraqi army and Shiite militiamen in a town south of Baghdad. There were also two suicide bombings in the capital. And there's been a sharp increase in the number of American troops killed; at least 10 have been killed since the weekend.
NPR's Corey Flintoff is in Baghdad. And talk to us about that fighting between the Iraqi army and the Madhi Army. Now that's the Shiite militia that's loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr.
COREY FLINTOFF reporting:
Right. Right now, both sides seem to be holding their fire in Diwaniyah, that's the town that's south of Baghdad where all this fighting started on Saturday night. They've got a strict curfew. There are - we're hearing conflicting stories about what touched it off, but Iraqi army troops apparently raided some neighborhoods in the town where the Madhi Army had been gaining control. They say they were attacked by the Madhis.
But what we do know is that it's spread into some pretty fierce fighting over Sunday and Monday. A doctor from the local hospital said at least 40 bodies were brought in, and most of those were government soldiers.
MONTAGNE: And now it's been relatively quiet, as I've just said, at least by Iraq standards for several weeks. What seems to be behind these latest bombings and shootings?
FLINTOFF: If you talk to U.S. military officials here, they say a lot of this is a concerted effort by the insurgents to just shatter the perception that the security situation is getting better. Back in June, Prime Minister Maliki announced a security crackdown, and since then the monthly death toll in Baghdad has actually gone down by nearly a third. Over the past couple of weeks, it was down even more after the U.S. and Iraqi commands brought in about 12,000 more troops to basically close off and clear some of the most violent neighborhoods.
MONTAGNE: And don't the insurgents, though, just move out of those areas and regroup somewhere else? That's rather been the tradition.
FLINTOFF: That's what the critics are saying, too. The U.S. military spokesman, Major General William Caldwell, told us the other day that Iraqi troops have searched more than 33,000 buildings and he said they've arrested 70 suspects so far. And 70 suspects doesn't really seem like a lot given the size of the operation, so it may be that the insurgents slipped away before the searchers could catch them.
Another thing to consider is that the insurgents aren't the only factor here. There's also killings by sectarian death squads and by criminal gangs, so it's unlikely that all the recent violence is part of a concerted strategy by the insurgents.
MONTAGNE: And thinking again about that fight between the Iraqi army, the official army, obviously, and the Madhi Army, the militia. Prime Minister Maliki promised when he took office that he would disarm the sectarian militias. What happened?
FLINTOFF: Disarming the militias is a pretty big order. There's a lot of them. They're relatively well armed. The Madhi Army is the most visible one because it acts like a de facto government in the areas it controls - one of them would be Sadr City here in Baghdad. They seem to be following the Hezbollah model from Lebanon. They're winning people's allegiance. They provide security and some social services and things like that.
The Madhi Army is also a big political problem for Maliki because it's aligned with Moqtada al-Sadr. He's usually the one the media describes as a radical Shiite cleric because he's outspokenly anti-American. Sadr helped get Maliki into office after that - you remember the long stalemate over who'd be chosen for prime minister, and he still has a lot of influence because his party now holds about 30 seats in parliament.
MONTAGNE: Finally, Corey, just briefly tell us about the 10 American soldiers killed over the past few days.
FLINTOFF: Most of them were killed by roadside bombs, and many of them in a series of separate attacks that took place over about a two-hour period on Sunday. What's notable is that they were in widely separated parts of the city, so it looked as though the insurgents were trying to show that they can strike American patrols anywhere the want to.
U.S. military officials say this insurgent attack is mainly an effort to get media attention and sway U.S. public opinion, and they say they don't believe the insurgents can sustain now for any length of time.
MONTAGNE: Corey, thanks very much.
NPR's Corey Flintoff speaking from Baghdad.
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