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BAGHDAD, May 15: The commander of US forces in Iraq on Saturday called for a swift end to the resistance led by Shia leader Moqtada Sadr as more than 40 Iraqis were killed during a 24-hour period.

Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez said the uprising had to be ended "fairly quickly" after more than a month of fighting between Sadr's followers and occupying troops across central and southern Iraq.

The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) described the fighting in the towns of Nasiriyah and Amara as a "minor" uprising that had been quelled.

The resistance started last month when US overseer Paul Bremer closed a newspaper owned by Moqtada Sadr and troops arrested one of his aides over the murder of a rival last year.

The worst of the latest fighting was near the southern city of Amara on Friday. British troops there claimed killing 20 militiamen after two vehicles were ambushed.

US troops claimed killing another 14 militiamen in a series of clashes in Sadr City, a predominantly Shia locality of the capital where Sadr's Mehdi Army has battled occupying forces for weeks.

In Karbala, Moqtada Sadr's militia clashed with US forces for a fourth straight day, losing four fighters, as soldiers using loudspeakers urged people to leave the area.

The fighting raged amid a continuing furore over abuse of prisoners by US and British troops that prompted Gen Sanchez to order an end to the use of sleep deprivation and other high-stress tactics in interrogations.

The move followed an outcry in the US Congress over an interrogation policy approved for Iraqi detainees late last year, which some legal experts said paid scant regard to the Geneva Conventions.

Three more US soldiers were killed in separate incidents on Friday and Saturday, taking to 781 the number of servicemen killed since the start of the invasion in March last year.

British troops came under attack in the south near Amara, 365 kilometres southeast of Baghdad, on Friday, sparking a five-hour gunbattle that left 20 militiamen dead, a British spokesman claimed.

Two British soldiers were wounded in the attack when their two Land Rovers came under fire in a series of gun and grenade attacks but were able to drive to safety after reinforcements were called in.

In the northern city of Mosul, four Iraqis were killed and 17 wounded in an attack on a recruiting centre for the new Iraqi army, police said.

The victims were trying to enrol with the US-trained force designed to take security responsibilities in the lead-up to elections scheduled for January.

Another three civilians were killed and seven wounded in fighting between the Mehdi Army and the US-trained Iraqi Civil Defence Corps (ICDC) in Karbala, medics said.

An ICDC patrol came under attack 50 metres from the shrines of Hazrat Imam Hussein and Hazrat Imam Abbas in the city centre, witnesses said.

Sadr's men have also clashed with Western troops in Baghdad, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Kufa, Amara and Basra in recent days. Sadr is holed up in Najaf.

In a private poll conducted for the CPA, quoted by the Washington Post this week, some 45 per cent of people questioned in Baghdad, and 67 per cent in Basra, said they backed Moqtada Sadr. -AFP