( dpa ) - Iraqi authorities launched more raids Monday in various parts of southern Iraq and rounded up 249 suspected members of a Shiite cult blamed for an outbreak of violence over the weekend, security officials said.
In a preemptive operation in Karbala, security forces rounded up nine suspects believed to be linked to a fringe Shiite group known as Soldiers of Heaven, a spokesman for the Karbala police department, Rahman Mashawi, told the Voices of Iraq (VOI) news agency.
Security officials had earlier blamed Soldiers of Heaven for the outbreak of violence in Basra and Ziqar, which left at least 97 people dead and 217 injured on Friday and Saturday, VOI reported.
Earlier, security forces rounded up 140 people in Basra and 100 in Ziqar in connection with the clashes.
Among the detainees, who were arrested Sunday, are doctors, academics, engineers and traders but the majority were from poorer, uneducated classes, who were tempted to join the group in return for money and jobs, General Hussein Kamal from the intelligence department of the Ministry of Interior was quoted as saying by VOI.
Many of the detainees were arrested while attempting to flee the country.
Kamal told state al-Iraqiyah TV that members of Soldiers of Heaven were also known as the Ahmed bin al-Hasan al-Yamani group.
The group, which believes in the return of a "hidden imam" known as the Mahdi, was involved in a ferocious battle with the security forces last year in the southern city of Najaf.
However, a spokesman for the al-Yamani group denied in an interview with the independent Iraqi al-Sharqiyah TV on Sunday that his organization was involved in Friday's violence, saying it was a peaceful group promoting tolerance among all religions.
In another development, the US military announced in two separate statements the death of two of its soldiers in operations on Saturday.
A soldier was killed in an improvised explosive device attack in Arab Jabur, south of Baghdad, while a marine soldier was killed during a combat operation in the western al-Anbar province, according to the statements.
The killings bring the death toll of US soldiers killed in Iraq in January to 25.
In Tikrit, police arrested a relative of ousted President Saddam Hussein, Daham al-Hasan, in Ouja, 170 kilometres north of Baghdad, on charges of financing insurgents and receiving money from Saddam's close circles to fund armed groups in Iraq.
He was shot and wounded by the police while trying to escape from his home.