BAGHDAD — A fierce battle between Shiite militants and U.S.-led coalition forces that left at least 20 people dead and six wounded on Monday drew an angry response from local leaders in Maysan province, who said many of the dead were civilians.
The battle came as Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki told reporters that no one but the Iraqi government could set timetables for Iraqi actions. The comments followed a barrage of visits to Iraq by U.S. officials, who pressed Maliki for quicker action on a series of U.S.-set benchmarks.
"We put time limits for ourselves, and we are the ones who hold ourselves accountable about the time we waste," he said. "We don't need anyone to set timing for us. The citizen is the one who urges us."
In the south, the Maysan provincial council suspended its activities to protest the action, whose victims included three women and a child. Jamal al Alawi, a spokesman for the health directorate, said 17 people were killed and at least 36 were wounded.
The U.S. military denied that there were civilian casualties. Maliki approved the operation, said Maj. David Gell, a British military spokesman in Basra.
Witnesses said the battles began around 11 p.m. Sunday, but a spokesman for the British forces said the operations started about 2:30 a.m.
Residents said U.S. paratroopers landed in Amarah and Majjar al-Kabir, about 200 miles southeast of the capital, and battled with the Mahdi Army, the militia led by maverick Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. The operation's target was a "secret cell" of Shiite militants smuggling armor-piercing weaponry from Iran to Iraq and planting roadside bombs, Gell said. British troops supported the operation, and U.S. aircraft flew overhead and destroyed a vehicle used by the militants, a military statement said.
"Intelligence reports indicate that both Amarah and Majjar al-Kabir are known safe havens and smuggling routes for Secret Cell terrorists who facilitate Iranian lethal aid," the military statement said.
Residents said helicopters attacked two homes where women and children slept. Images of young men with bandaged heads and chests aired on television.
Ahmed Shaybani, a Sadr official who was released from U.S. detention in March in hopes that he would be a moderate voice in the movement, condemned the raids. He denied that anyone was involved in smuggling Iranian weapons and said local men had fought off invading "Iraqi forces and occupation troops."
They were celebrating their victory in the streets when U.S. aircraft hit the crowd, he said. Shaybani put the death toll at 34. He said only 16 were Mahdi Army militiamen.
In Najaf, a McClatchy special correspondent watched as men carried 28 coffins in a funeral procession to the Shiite cemetery, the Valley of Peace.
The U.S. military said they weren't aware of any civilians being killed, and British forces said coalition troops only fired when fired upon.
"We know that there were women and children in the area, but we have no reports of them being killed," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Garver said.
One resident in Amarah, who would only give his name as Hazim, said the Mahdi Army waited for the U.S. led-soldiers. As they approached the center of the city, the militiamen set off roadside bombs and opened fire. In Majjar al-Kabir, resident Majid Mohammed said helicopters buzzed over homes for hours and destroyed two houses before flying away.
Violence returned to Baghdad one day after the government lifted a curfew imposed in the wake of last week's bombing at a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Thirty-three unidentified bodies were found dumped around the capital. Most bore gunshot wounds. At least three were women.
Gunmen killed three Iraqi government employees in three separate attacks at government buildings and homes.
In the neighborhood of Dora, a car bomb detonated in a long line of vehicles waiting to fill their cars with gas, killing three and wounding 27.
Simultaneous mortar attacks in Abu Ghraib, a Sunni suburb, and Zaafarinyah killed two and wounded six, police said.
In Fallujah, in Anbar province, a truck bomb struck a marketplace in the city center, killing five and injuring 14, hospital officials said.
(Contributing to this report were McClatchy special correspondents Ali Abu Iraq in Basra, Qassim Zein in Najaf and Mahdi al Dulaimy in Fallujah.