Sunday, September 25, 2005

BAGHDAD — An uneasy truce between American forces and gunmen loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ended in a bloody clash yesterday, killing eight militiamen and wounding five in a poor Shi’ite district of the capital, Iraqi police said.

The battle began when gunmen from Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army ambushed an Iraqi patrol in the Sadr City slum in Baghdad.

U.S. forces joined the 90-minute battle, which marked the first significant violence in the neighborhood in nearly a year.

The multiple daily suicide bombings in the past week are seen as part of a steady buildup of violence in the run-up to Iraq’s crucial referendum on a draft constitution.

Major attacks yesterday included:

• A suicide car bombing in Baghdad that killed 13 Iraqi commandos and injured 10 from Iraq’s most efficient anti-terrorist fighting force, the Wolves Brigade.

Its members recently foiled a terrorist attack on the international convention center inside the heavily protected green zone of Baghdad.

• A bomber on a bicycle blew himself up in a crowded vegetable market in the mainly Shi’ite city of Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, killing four persons, including a woman and a child, and wounding 48, police said.

• Seven Iraqis, including two children, died in a mortar attack on a commercial street in the center of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

• Six civilians were killed and 19 wounded as a car bomb exploded in the town of Musayyib, south of Baghdad.

• A suicide car bomber slammed into a convoy carrying Interior Ministry commandos in Baghdad, killing seven of them and two civilians.

Sunni Muslim insurgents and terrorists are behind the bulk of the bombings.

However, tension between some Shi’ite factions and U.S.-led coalition forces was stoked last week by clashes with British troops in the southern city of Basra. Much of Basra is controlled by Sheik al-Sadr’s militia.

The militia clashed repeatedly with U.S. forces until a year ago, when a truce was negotiated.

Before then, the sheik’s fighters had led uprisings against coalition forces in Kut, Najaf and Karbala, all south of Baghdad.

Apart from the daily attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces, Sunni terrorists have sought to drag the nation into sectarian civil war by attacking Shi’ites in mosques and elsewhere.

Shi’ite assassination squads also have picked off Sunnis, whom they regard as enemies or loyalists of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

In Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad, more than 1,000 people marched yesterday to protest the new constitution, which is to be put to a nationwide referendum next month.

Protesters fear the constitution will divide Iraq along sectarian lines by giving too much autonomy to Kurds in the north and pro-Iranian Shi’ites in the south.

The crowd, though largely made up of Sunni Arabs, also included some Shi’ite supporters of Sheik al-Sadr, who has broken with most Shi’ite leaders in opposing the constitution.

The draft constitution was drawn up by the Shi’ite- and Kurdish-led government over Sunni objections, but the Sunnis could block the constitution if two-thirds of the voters in three of the country’s eighteen provinces vote against it.

The Sunnis, who make up 20 percent to 30 percent of Iraq’s population, are a majority in four provinces.

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