BAGHDAD, Feb 24 (Reuters) Shi'ite militiamen clashed with gunmen in southern Baghdad today, leaving Iraqi security forces who are trying to enforce a curfew helpless to stop them, police sources said.
They said the clashes were between unidentified gunmen, possibly minority Sunnis, and members of the Mehdi Army militia loyal to firebrand Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who called on his followers today not to attack Sunnis or their mosques.
It was not immediately clear if anyone was hurt in the skirmishes in the Saidiya area, which undermined a day-time curfew announced by the government to try to stop violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites on the Muslim day of prayer.
Residents of the religiously-mixed area said they heard heavy and sustained gunfire overnight.
Iraqis are mainly staying off the streets in the capital and surrounding provinces, which are religiously-mixed and where tensions have been running high since an attack on a Shi'ite shrine on Wednesday sparked reprisals against Sunni mosques.
But many thousands of Shi'ites flouted the curfew to throng to mosques in the sprawling Shi'ite slum of Sadr City, in the east of the capital, where support for Sadr runs high.
His Mehdi Army militia has been seen roaming the streets over the past two days and Sunnis accuse it of being at the forefront of sectarian violence that has shaken Iraq's unity.
Twenty bodies of people who were killed overnight and this morning have been brought to the morgue, a police source said. About 200 Iraqis have been killed in Baghdad alone since Wednesday, prompting officials and politicians to appeal for calm amid growing concerns of a slide into all-out civil war.
REUTERS CH PM1643