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Three U.S. soldiers killed, seven wounded in shootout in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Three U.S. soldiers were killed and seven were wounded during an overnight shootout with a Shiite Muslim cleric's bodyguards in the holy city of Karbala, about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad, the military said Friday.

The midnight shootout also left at least two Iraqi police officers dead. Reports said at least eight other Iraqis were killed.

The incident marked one of the deadliest days for U.S. troops in Iraq in more than a month and highlighted the growing tension between coalition forces and Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, whose cooperation is key to the Iraqi reconstruction effort.

In a brief statement, Lt. Col. George Krivo said the gunmen ambushed military and Iraqi police as they investigated reports of armed men congregating after curfew near the Imam Abbas mosque, one of Karbala's two holiest shrines. A fierce gun battle broke out, with exchanges of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

"We wish to express our deepest condolences to the Iraqi and coalition families that have lost loved ones, and assure that those who are responsible will be held accountable for their actions," Krivo said.

Krivo said bodyguards of cleric Mahmoud al Hassani, one of Karbala's lesser-known ayatollahs, were involved in the clash.

"We don't know whether he was personally involved or not," Krivo said. "We are aware that he has made anti-coalition statements in the past."

Hassani was an associate of the late father of Moqtada al Sadr, a radical 30-year-old cleric who has called the U.S.-appointed Governing Council illegitimate and last week named his own Islamic government.

The clash appeared to have been sparked in part by a new U.S. and coalition attempt to crack down on religious Shiite militias that have sprung up in recent months and to enforce curfews, which Iraqis in many areas routinely ignore.

In an unrelated incident, a military spokesman said one U.S. soldier with the 220th Military Police Brigade was killed and two were wounded Friday when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. Their deaths bring to 101 the number of American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq since May 1, when President Bush declared major combat operations were over. In all, 336 soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began last March, 216 of them in combat. More than 1,500 others have been wounded.

Thursday night's clash was just the latest in a wave of violence that has swept Iraq in the last 10 days. With three suicide bombings and what appear to be at least two assassination attempts against U.S.-allied Iraqi officials in the capital, a low-level guerrilla war in the west, and attacks increasing on U.S. troops in the north, the overall security situation in Iraq appears to be deteriorating, despite claims by senior Bush administration and coalition officials of significant progress in the last six months.

The clash comes amid heightened tension in Karbala. On Tuesday, a group of about 40 gunmen associated with Sadr took about eight people hostage and seized two mosques. A battle ensued with about 200 gunmen loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite leader, leaving at least one man dead. Two days of tense negotiations by religious authorities led to the release of the hostages Thursday, coalition officials said, but Sadr's gunmen reportedly remained in control of the al Qaas and al Mukhaym mosques.

Over the past three weeks, U.S. soldiers have clashed on several occasions with Sadr's militia, popularly known as the "Medhi Army." In an Oct. 9 incident, two U.S. soldiers with the 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment were killed and three more wounded when they were lured into an ambush in Sadr City, just hours after a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into the neighborhood police station, killing at least eight people.

Since the ambush, U.S. troops have kept up a heavy presence in the neighborhood, stationing tanks outside the local municipal building, which Sadr loyalists took over for a few days. Iraqi police later forced them out. Military police have also set up a checkpoint at the edge of the enclave and frequently stop vehicles to search for weapons. The aim is to prevent more Sadr gunmen from flocking to Karbala and other Shiite religious centers, a senior coalition military official said on condition of anonymity.

On Friday, about 15,000 worshippers gathered for open-air services in Sadr City, as clerics denounced the U.S.-led occupation and called on followers to stage peaceful demonstrations, which failed to materialize. A protest outside the coalition headquarters in Baghdad two weeks ago drew about 5,000 people, but there have been none since.


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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Iraq clash