By Ross Colvin and Randy Fabi
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Mehdi Army fighters attacked policepatrols in southern Baghdad overnight, police said on Friday,further fraying a seven-month-old ceasefire called by Shi'itecleric Moqtada al-Sadr to rein in his militia.
The clashes in Baghdad's Shurta district follow outbreaksof violence in the southern Iraqi city of Kut in which MehdiArmy fighters have battled U.S. and Iraqi security forces.Three people were killed in fresh fighting in Kut late onThursday.
The fighting took place on the same day that Iraq markedthe fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion to topple SaddamHussein.
Sadr, whose militia fought two uprisings against U.S.forces in 2004, first called a ceasefire last August andextended it last month. But two weeks ago he issued a statementtelling his followers they could defend themselves if attacked.
Shortly afterwards, gunbattles broke out between Mehdi Armyfighters and Iraqi and U.S. security forces in Kut, raisingfears that the ceasefire was unravelling. Until Thursday,violence involving the Mehdi Army had been confined to Kut.
U.S. military spokesman Major Mark Cheadle said U.S. forceshad launched an operation on Thursday in the western Rashiddistrict of Baghdad, which includes Shurta, to target gunmenfiring mortar bombs on civilian areas.
Six gunmen were killed by ground troops and air strikes byApache attack helicopters and two detained, he said. An Iraqipolice lieutenant meanwhile had been kidnapped, he added.
Both Kut and Shurta were reported to be quiet on Friday, aMuslim holiday, although police said Iraqi and U.S. forces hadsurrounded the southern Baghdad district.
BODIES IN BLACK SACKS
Two police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity,said the clashes in Shurta began on Thursday night when MehdiArmy fighters launched simultaneous attacks on police patrolsand attacked a checkpoint.
"They captured 17 policemen and forced them to take offtheir clothes. Then they freed them in their underwear," saidone of the officials.
The second police source said the gunmen had burnt severalcars and captured a number of weapons from the police. U.S.forces later brought eight bodies in black plastic sacks to al-Bayaa police station in southern Baghdad, he said.
U.S. commanders have said Sadr's ceasefire has contributedto a 60 percent drop in violence since last June, allowing themto push ahead with plans to begin withdrawing 20,000 troopssent to Iraq last year to help curb sectarian bloodletting.
They are therefore likely to be worried by any sign thatSadr's truce is no longer being observed by some elements ofhis militia, who are estimated to number in the thousands.Their main stronghold is in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City.
While Mehdi Army leaders have distanced themselves from thefighting in Kut, rank and file militia members are known to bedeeply unhappy with the ceasefire, accusing rival Shi'itefactions and the U.S. forces of using it to attack them.
The fighting comes amid an upsurge in violence in Iraqsince January, which the U.S. military has blamed on al Qaeda.
U.S. commanders say the spike does not represent a trend,but analysts warn that al Qaeda and Mehdi Army elements maystep up attacks ahead of the November U.S. presidentialelection.
(Writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)