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Three U.S. soldiers killed in two separate attacks in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Three U.S. soldiers were killed in two separate attacks near the Iraqi capital Tuesday, capping a day in which American troops also were called on to quell a violent protest outside the gates of the ruling Coalition Provisional Authority and to confront demonstrators near a mosque in southwest Baghdad.

Military officials said one of the dead soldiers was a member of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment whose vehicle struck a homemade bomb west of Baghdad at about 9:50 p.m. The other two, who were in the 82nd Airborne Division, were killed about an hour later when their vehicle struck a bomb in the town of Haswah, 35 miles south of Baghdad. An Iraqi interpreter also was killed in that attack, military officials said.

The deaths brought to 91 the number of soldiers killed in action since President Bush declared May 1 that major combat operations in the war were over.

Earlier Tuesday, more than 2,000 former officers of Saddam Hussein's disbanded Mukhabarat intelligence service gathered outside the grounds of Saddam's former Republican Palace, where U.S. officials have the headquarters for their provisional government, and demanded jobs and stipends.

Iraqi police fired on the crowd after someone in it threw a hand grenade at the nearby Foreign Ministry. American troops from the 1st Armored Division were summoned. They forced the demonstrators from the area and blocked off nearby streets. A military spokeswoman said she had no information on how many Iraqis were killed or wounded in the incident.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops clashed briefly with a group of Shiite Muslim militiamen near the Ali Kazem al Bayai mosque in southwestern Baghdad after a group of 1,000 protesters staged a sit-in on an adjacent highway, shutting down traffic on one of the capital's busiest thoroughfares for most of the day. Military officials said they had no information on the incident, or if there were casualties on either side.

The demonstrators said they were protesting the arrest of a cleric, Sheik Moayed al Khazraji, who was detained Monday after Iraqi police said they had found weapons in the mosque. American forces also accused Khazraji of harboring foreign fighters in the mosque, a charge that demonstrators said was false. Khazraji is associated with Moqtada al Sadr, a radical young Shiite cleric who has called on followers to resist coalition forces and the U.S.-backed Governing Council.

The crowd appeared unarmed when a group of about 500 took up positions on a busy highway in front of the mosque.

The protesters carried green, red and black religious banners and others that called for Khazraji's release. "Today we are unarmed, but tomorrow we return with weapons," one read. Many in the mostly male crowd wore white funeral shrouds tied around their necks, a gesture that meant they were ready for martyrdom if necessary.

Clerics led the demonstrators in prayers on the scorching pavement, and senior American military officers conferred with several of the group's leaders in an attempt to resolve the matter peacefully.

As word of the demonstration spread, busloads of other demonstrators began to arrive, swelling the crowd to more than 1,000. At one point, an 18-wheel truck arrived with 20 to 30 people piled on its trailer. Entreaties by coalition military officers to end the demonstration failed.

Around 4 p.m., two sport utility vehicles with coalition personnel inside drove toward the demonstrators, and then veered into an adjacent neighborhood. It was unclear if they were uniformed soldiers or a security detachment. Some demonstrators raced toward the neighborhood, following the vehicles.

Shooting erupted a few minutes later. Three or four grenades exploded. Helicopters swooped in low over the area. The shooting went on for 15 to 20 minutes.

Leaders of the demonstration urged the crowd to remain calm, and the protest continued on the highway. But many in the crowd became agitated, and some threatened journalists until they left the area.

Later, U.S. armored vehicles arrived and forced the demonstrators from the highway. After darkness fell, Iraqi police blocked entrance ramps to the area, but cars could be seen moving along the highway where the demonstrators had been.

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(Special correspondents Peyman Pejman and W.H. Mansour contributed to this report.)

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

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