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Calm returns to Basra; 1,000 Iraqis demand council's ouster

BASRA, Iraq—Calm returned Monday to the streets of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, after two days of riots over fuel and electricity shortages left one Iraqi protester and a Nepalese security guard dead.

But in the nearby Shiite city of Nasiriyah, about 1,000 protesters demanded the resignation of the city's U.S.-appointed local council. Monday's demonstration was peaceful, but a Shiite cleric issued a religious edict threatening death if members of the council refused to leave office.

In Baghdad, military officials reported that one U.S. soldier with the 4th Infantry Division was killed and two were wounded late Sunday in Baqouba, about 40 miles north of the capital, when Iraqi guerrillas detonated a homemade bomb as the soldiers guarded the city's police station. Baqouba lies in the heart of Iraq's so-called Sunni Triangle, an area that includes the capital and cities to the north and west, where most attacks on U.S. soldiers have occurred.

The attack brought to 63 the number of U.S. and British troops who have died from hostile fire since President Bush declared May 1 that major combat in Iraq was over. More than 60 other soldiers have died in non-hostile actions. More than 400 have been wounded by hostile fire.

In Nasiriyah, Sheik Asad al Nasseri, the city's most important Shiite cleric, stood in the back of a flatbed truck with a bullhorn and barked threats against the U.S.-appointed city council, which was meeting in a nearby government building. Demonstrators assembled before the building, which was under the protection of heavily armed Italian soldiers listening silently behind razor wire.

"You have only one hour to resign peacefully," al Nasseri warned. "After that, I will issue a religious decree permitting the people to kill you."

Minutes earlier, two councilmen had crept out to announce their resignations. Cheered on by the crowd, one member immediately joined the demonstration against his colleagues. Iraqi police escorted the other man home, steering him away from protesters calling for blood.

Such blunt promises of violence are rare in Nasiriyah and other southern cities, which have benefited since the war from multimillion-dollar public works projects, thousands of new jobs and little friction with European soldiers, who often forgo body armor when they ride around town.

British military officials blamed the demonstrations in Nasiriyah and the neighboring port city of Basra on the searing heat, dilapidated infrastructure and acts of sabotage that have caused severe shortages of electricity, water and fuel. Iraqis at the demonstration, however, said U.S.-led forces had abandoned promises of self-determination for Iraqis and were deliberately depriving residents of basic services.

Either way, the afternoon showdown—as well as several days of rioting in Basra—demonstrates that southern Iraq no longer is immune to the potentially deadly resistance that plagues U.S.-led forces in Baghdad and cities to the north.

After about half an hour passed with no further surrenders from the Nasiriyah government, the sun-baked crowd began to disperse with promises of more demonstrations until the entire 20-person council dissolved. Many men swore loudly to uphold al Nasseri's religious decree, or fatwa, to hunt down council members and kill them.

"Just like Iraqis looted after the war, these council members looted our town," said Ali Mohamed Hassan, 38, an organizer of the protest. "They took control of everything without being elected. We're not upset about electricity or water. We are upset because leaders have been imposed on us."

Further south, in Basra, coalition spokesman Steve Bird defended British troops' actions over the weekend, saying they fired only rubber bullets at demonstrators who threw rocks.

More than $15 million in aid has been earmarked for projects to restore utilities to Basra, Bird said, despite setbacks from saboteurs who have targeted the city's main power and water lines. In the past few weeks, coalition forces have seized 74 oil tanker trucks in efforts to stop the smuggling of petroleum and other oil-related products, which end up on the black market, causing higher prices and shortages.

As of Monday, Bird said, the chronically poor were receiving welfare, the central bank had reopened and more than 3,000 local police officers were back on duty. Unlike in Baghdad, residents sip tea at rooftop cafes long after dark and families feel safe enough to stroll along the banks of the Euphrates River.

In Baghdad, U.S. soldiers shot and killed one Iraqi man in the capital Monday, claiming he was part of a group of three who threw a hand grenade at their convoy. Several people who said they had witnessed the incident said the man had nothing to do with the attack.

"Yeah, they're all saints until they get shot," said Staff Sgt. Dale Hall of Jackson, Mich., standing near the body in a grassy area around one of Baghdad's main squares. "This guy and three others were shooting at our forces as they were being pursued. He got what he had coming to him."

Nearby, Air Habib Hausu, who said he was a close friend of the dead man, told a different story, saying the two were standing in the tire shop where they worked when they heard shots, and the man ran because he was afraid.

"He is not an attacker. They are liars," he said.

Two hand grenades exploded outside the British embassy in Baghdad overnight, but it wasn't clear if the embassy itself was targeted, said U.S. Army Col. Guy Shields, a coalition spokesman. Two truck drivers, one reported to be a Syrian delivering supplies to the compound, was wounded.

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(Allam reported from Nasiriyah and Basra; Brown and Dilanian reported from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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