( AFP ) -British and Iraqi forces backed by helicopters killed 20 people in the southern province of Maysan in coordinated raids on Monday targeting weapon supply routes of Shiite militiamen.
Troops called in air support after coming under heavy small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks during the raids in the provincial capital Amara and Mujar al-Kabir, 18 miles south, the US military said.
"Coalition forces killed at least 20 terrorists, wounded six suspected terrorists and detained one suspected terrorist during operations targeting secret cells operating in Amara and Mujar al-Kabir," a military statement said.
But Maysan provincial council member Latif al-Timimi gave a lower toll and also a different account, saying those killed were local residents.
"Sixteen people were killed and 14 wounded, including two women and a child," Timimi told AFP.
"Most of the dead were killed in bombings as they were sleeping on the roofs of their homes. Those killed were residents and not linked to any political party."
Timimi said that the council decided at emergency meeting to demand an apology from British and Iraqi forces, and to suspend work for three days.
The southern provinces of Iraq are under the control of British forces, which were involved in the raids, local security and health officials said.
British military spokesman Major David Gell confirmed the operation but gave no details.
Amara health department director Jameel Mohammed said the local hospital had received 16 bodies and admitted 37 wounded people, including one woman and a child.
British forces pulled out of Amara in August 2006, handing over responsibility for the city's security to Iraqi security forces. But since then Amara has often seen clashes between militamen and security forces.
In similar clashes between Iraqi forces and militants in and around the southern city of Nasiriyah, seven people, including three policemen, were killed and another 45 wounded, a police officer said.
A spokesman for radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Amara confirmed the raid, raising suspicion that those killed could be Shiite militants loyal to the cleric who have often clashed with security forces.
"Last night British forces carried out a mission using helicopters and aircraft in Amara. They used bombs, missiles and small arms fire," said Auda al-Baharani.
The US military insisted those killed were "terrorists."
"The individuals detained during the raid are believed to be members of the secret cell terrorist network known for facilitating transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators from Iran to Iraq, as well as bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for training," it said in the statement.
The military has regularly charged that these explosively formed pentrators are manufactured in Iran and smuggled to armed groups in Iraq to fight US-led troops.
"Coalition forces came under heavy small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks in both Amara and Mujar al-Kabir," it said.
"Using appropriate escalation of force measures, ground forces were forced to use close air support to suppress the enemy fire.
"Intelligence reports indicate that both Amara and Mujar al-Kabir are known safe havens and smuggling routes for secret cell terrorists who facilitate Iranian lethal aid," the military said.
"Reports further indicate that Iranian surrogates, or Iraqis that are liaisons for Iranian intelligence operatives into Iraq, use both Amara and Mujar al-Kabir as safe haven locations."
An Iraqi security official in Amara said the British troops threw leaflets from helicopters declaring: "The Iraqi government will not be soft on terrorism" and "Maysan will not be a safe area for the Iranian Qods Force and its agents who want to weaken the Iraqi government."
The leaflets also carried pictures of militants wanted by the security forces, he added.