A suicide car bomber struck at the nerve center of Iraq's embattled security forces yesterday, killing 16 people and injuring 60 more in an attack on the Interior Ministry.
The attack came as Interior Minister Jawad Bolani was due to hold a meeting with police chiefs, and capped off a torrid 24 hours of carnage in which more than 60 Iraqis and five American soldiers had already been killed.
A security official said that eight police commandos were among those killed when the bomber detonated his cargo of explosives near a checkpoint outside the ministry's tightly-guarded compound in downtown Baghdad.
The blast was the latest blow to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's campaign to convince Iraqis and the world that his government and security forces are up to the task of bringing peace to his bitterly divided country.
"The violence is on the decrease, and our security ability is increas-ing," Maliki said in an interview on Sunday with CNN. "I want to assure he who loves Iraq that Iraq will never be in a civil war."
Meanwhile, gunbattles between Iraqi troops and Shiite militiamen loyal to a popular cleric in the Shiite-dominated city of Diwaniyah left at least 34 people dead and dozens wounded, officials said yesterday.
The fighting broke out at about 11pm on Sunday when Iraqi soldiers conducted raids in three neighborhoods to flush out the militiamen and seize weapons, said army Captain Fatik Aied.
He said the fighting continued yesterday with the militiamen of the Mehdi Army, which is loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Shiite militiamen had set up checkpoints and taken over seven neighborhoods -- about half of the city -- while the army had retreated to other areas and was waiting for reinforcements from nearby Najaf, Aied said.
Dr. Mohammed Abdul-Muhsen of the city's general hospital said 34 bodies had been brought in -- 25 Iraqi soldiers, seven civilians and two militiamen. He said at least 70 people were wounded, but could not immediately give a breakdown.
Aied said the militiamen used rocket propelled grenades and automatic assault rifles. At least 10 militiamen had been arrested.
Sheik Adil al-Ansari, an al-Sadr aide based in Diwaniyah, blamed the army.
"It was an irresponsible act by the Iraqi army when they opened fire on the volunteers," he said, referring to the militia. "It [the fighting] is over now and a delegation from the province will go to meet Moqtada al-Sadr," he said.
"Moqtada al-Sadr ordered the volunteers to calm down, exercise self-control and resolve the problem," he said.
Diwaniyah, 130km south of Baghdad, is a Shiite dominated city where the influence of Mehdi Army has been gradually increasing. It already runs a virtual parallel government in Sadr City, a slum in eastern Baghdad.
In other developments, seven Iraqi civilians were killed in crossfire when US troops clashed with rebels in Baghdad's western, mainly-Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliyah, a US military spokesman said yesterday.
He said clashes broke out on Sunday afternoon as an armored vehicle belonging to the 172nd Stryker Brigade was hit by a roadside bomb.
"The bomb attack was followed by an RPG [rocket propelled grenade] attack after which the soldiers returned fire. Seven civilians were killed in the crossfire," the spokesman said.
One US soldier was killed in the attack and another wounded, he said. A US military statement said that the second soldier had since died of his wounds.