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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 March 2008, 10:50 GMT
US troops clash with Iraq militia
Iraqi man holds up blooded clothes after bus attack
Iraqi and US sources dispute the casualty figure from the bus attack
The US says it has killed a number of militants in clashes in the mainly-Shia Muslim city of Kut in southern Iraq.

Local medics said at least 17 people were killed, including five children, during gun battles on Tuesday between troops and Mehdi Army militiamen.

Violence appears to be on the rise again in Iraq after a day in which at least 44 people were reported killed.

The deadliest attack confirmed by Iraqi officials was a roadside bomb killing 16, though US troops disputed the toll.

The fighting in Kut was located in three districts known to be strongholds of the Mehdi Army which supports radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, police said.

The US military said it provided ground and air support when Iraqi forces came under attack, at which point a large number of "enemy fighters" joined the fray.

A US air strike destroyed a van carrying explosives, the US military said, whose occupants were suspected of placing roadside bombs along patrol routes.

Discrepancy

The roadside bomb on Tuesday hit a bus near Nasiriya as it was taking a group of Shia Muslims back to Basra from the holy city of Najaf.

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The reason for the discrepancy between the Iraqi death toll and the US figure - which was that no-one had died - was not immediately clear.

US military spokesman in Baghdad Maj Brad Leighton told the AP news agency: "The bus only received minor damage - it drove away on its own. We were right there."

He said the bomb targeted a convoy of the US-led multi-national force in Iraq, and wounded one coalition force member and one Iraqi.

Press photographs from the scene confirmed the presence of US soldiers, but showed the bus being taken away by a tow-truck.

Shrapnel marks were visible and blooded garments, but there were no bodies, which local medical sources said were taken to Nasiriya and Basra hospitals.

No trend

In other violence on Tuesday, gunman attacked a police checkpoint in Mosul, northern Iraq, killing four policemen, with four deaths also among the gunmen.

In Duluiyah, north of the capital Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew up a truck at a checkpoint killing five people.

Nine US troops and an interpreter have also been killed since Monday.

Correspondents say the levels of Tuesday's violence were reminiscent of the worst days of the anti-US insurgency and sectarian killings in 2006 and 2007.

However, US military spokespeople have said recent violence should not be taken as evidence of a trend.

"I think we need to continue to look at historically what has happened over the last year to really put in perspective a one-week or two-weeks' worth of activity inside Baghdad," said Rear Adm Gregory Smith on Sunday.

Daily death tolls had fallen between August 2007 and January 2008, when on average 20 Iraqis died in violence per day.

Media reports say the average was 26 Iraqis in February and is up to 39 so far in March.



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The clashes in southern Iraq



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