Street battles between members of a shadowy messianic sect and Iraq's security forces in two southern cities killed at least 66 people, mostly cultists, police have said.
At least 35 members of the Shiite doomsday cult were killed in the southern port city of Basra and 18 in Nasiriyah, about 350 km south of Baghdad, in the battles which broke out on Friday, police officials said on Friday.
The other casualties were nine police and four civilians.
Fighting continued sporadically through the night in Nasiriyah and flared again at daybreak when Iraq's security forces launched a new raid against the cultists, who had taken over houses and a mosque in Al-Salhiyah suburb, police said.
A police official, who would not be named, said US military forces had surrounded Al-Salhiyah but were not taking part in the fighting.
Two policemen were killed by teenage snipers during Friday clashes. The snipers, two 14-year-old boys, were quickly arrested, police said.
During Friday's clashes seven other policemen were killed in Nasiriyah, including two colonels and a lieutenant. A total of 55 policemen and troops were wounded when the cultists attacked with machineguns and assault rifles.
At least 25 cultists were arrested in Naisiriyah and 60 in Basra.
In Basra, fighting died down during the night and the streets were calm today, police said.
Followers of the cult, led by Ahmed al-Hassani al-Yamani, seek to hasten the return of Imam Mahdi, an eighth century imam who vanished as a boy and who Shiites believe will return to bring justice to the world.