At least 24 Iraqi soldiers have been killed in clashes with Shia militiamen in the southern Iraqi city of Diwaniya.

Iraqi forces have set up a cordon around Diwaniyah after rogue elements of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army seized complete control of two neighbourhoods.

The battle in Diwaniyah followed a suicide car bomb attack at the interior ministry in Baghdad which left 14 people dead.

Another 45 people were wounded in the blast, the latest in a string of attacks in recent days.

Amid a surge in violence across the country, a spate of car bombings and shootings killed 60 people yesterday. 

Despite this, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has claimed that violence is decreasing, saying that the country would never slide into a civil war.

Mr Maliki has refused to be drawn on a timetable for the withdrawal of the 130,000 US and 7,000 British troops who form the bulk of the foreign force in Iraq.