- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

BAGHDAD — Four U.S. Marines drowned when their tank rolled off a bridge into a canal, the military said yesterday. Gunmen killed a Sunni preacher and his son in southern Iraq despite an appeal for tolerance by Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric.

Clashes erupted yesterday between two Iraqi army units following a roadside bombing north of the capital, and Iraqi police said a Shi’ite soldier was killed in an exchange of fire with a Kurdish unit.

The four Marines died Thursday near Karmah, 50 miles west of Baghdad in Anbar province, a focus of the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency. A U.S. statement said the accident was not due to hostile fire.

In Basra, Sheik Khalil Ibrahim, imam of the Sunni Khudairi mosque, and his son were fatally shot as they left the building after Friday prayers, police said. The assailants escaped.

The killing occurred after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani ordered Shi’ite mosques to close for three days starting yesterday in a town near Basra to protest the assassination of a Sunni cleric earlier this week and to show solidarity with the Sunni community.

The ayatollah’s decree affected only Shi’ite mosques in Zubayr, a mostly Sunni town 12 miles west of Basra. Ayatollah al-Sistani, who has spoken out often against sectarian violence, gave the order after gunmen killed Sunni imam Sheik Khaled Ali Obeid al-Saadoun and two of his associates Wednesday.

In other violence yesterday, one police officer was killed and two were wounded in two drive-by shootings by suspected insurgents in Baghdad, police said.

A car bomb also exploded near a U.S. convoy and an office of the Dawa Party of Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki, but little damage and no casualties were reported, police said.

On Thursday, U.S. troops and Iraqi police rescued Sunni men taken hostage when gunmen raided their villages near Khan Bani Saad, 25 miles northeast of Baghdad. Seven hostages were freed but three were missing.

Nearly five months after national elections, the country’s Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians are still trying to come together to form a Cabinet that will make the government fully operational.

The framework of the new government was put in place last month with the appointment of Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, as prime minister. Mr. al-Maliki is trying to put together a Cabinet, but the process has become bogged down by debate over who will hold key ministries such as defense, interior and oil.

That was clear yesterday when Fadhila, a small but important Shi’ite political party, said it would not participate in the formation of the Cabinet. It said the Cabinet selection process was being dictated by personal interests and pressure by the United States that ran counter to the spirit of national unity.

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