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Religious leaders tell al-Sadr to keep militia intact

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq's top Shiite religious leaders have told anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr not to disband his Mehdi Army, an al-Sadr spokesman said Monday amid fresh fighting in the militia's Baghdad strongholds.

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A Shiite woman is rushed to the hospital after she was wounded Monday in clashes in Sadr City.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki demanded Sunday that the cleric disband his militia, which waged two uprisings against U.S. troops in 2004, or see his supporters barred from public office.

But al-Sadr spokesman Salah al-Obeidi said al-Sadr has consulted with Iraq's Shiite clerical leadership "and they refused that." He did not provide details of the talks.

The Mehdi Army has borne the brunt of an Iraqi government crackdown on what Iraqi and U.S. officials call "outlaw" militias in the past two weeks. The government's effort to reclaim control of the southern city of Basra in late March sparked clashes across southern Iraq and into Baghdad, leaving more than 700 dead, according to U.N. agencies.

Al-Sadr's followers have accused the government, which is dominated by al-Sadr's leading rivals, of trying to cripple their movement before provincial elections in October.

The Sadrists hold about 30 seats in Iraq's 275-member parliament and were part of al-Maliki's ruling coalition until August. The cleric withdrew his support over al-Maliki's refusal to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Video Watch al-Maliki talk about issues that concern Iraq »

Fighting in Baghdad continued through the weekend after al-Maliki issued his call for the Mehdi Army to disband.

U.S. aircraft struck targets in two Shiite districts of Baghdad on Monday, with Iraqi officials reporting at least 18 dead. And three U.S. soldiers were killed in action Monday, bringing the number of U.S. combat deaths to nine in the past two days and 4,023 since the war began. Video Watch a report from the front line in Sadr City »

In addition, nine Iraqis were killed and 65 were wounded in clashes that lasted into Monday morning in Sadr City, an Iraqi Interior Ministry official said. U.S. troops and armor backed up Iraqi troops in Sadr City on Sunday as they fought to shut down rocket and mortar fire that targeted U.S. bases and the International Zone, the heavily fortified Baghdad district that houses Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy.

The latest fighting came on the eve of a highly anticipated progress report on the five year old war by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Both men are set to begin two days of testimony to American lawmakers Tuesday in Washington.

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The U.S. military blames the attacks on "criminal elements" violating al-Sadr's March 30 order to his followers to halt their attacks on government forces. The attacks have gone up sharply since al-Maliki's government launched its operation in Basra.

Al-Sadr has called for a mass demonstration in Baghdad on Wednesday against the U.S. presence in Iraq. That protest that would coincide with the fifth anniversary of the toppling of former dictator Saddam Hussein's government, which fell as a U.S.-led army entered the Iraqi capital. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

All About IraqMuqtada al-SadrAl Qaeda in Iraq

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