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Four U.S. Soldiers Killed in Iraq Clashes

By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press Writer

KARBALA, Iraq - U.S. combat deaths since the end of major fighting passed the 100 mark Friday after a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol confronted gunmen outside the headquarters of a Shiite Muslim cleric, triggering clashes in which three Americans and 10 Iraqis were killed, including two Iraqi policemen.

Another American soldier was killed and two were wounded by a roadside bomb near Baghdad, and nine U.S. troops were wounded in a roadside bombing in the northern city of Mosul.

The four deaths made it the deadliest day for American soldiers in Iraq (news - web sites) since Sept. 18, when three soldiers were killed in an ambush. With the latest deaths, the number of U.S. soldiers who have died by hostile fire since President Bush (news - web sites) declared an end to major combat May 1 has climbed to 101.

During a visit Friday to U.S. troops in Tikrit, Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, commander of the Army's 3rd Corps, told reporters American troops would be in Iraq for another troop rotation or even two. At current pace of a turnover of troops every year, that could mean U.S. forces would be in Iraq until 2006.

The bloody battle in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala, about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad, took place over a 12-hour period. It underscores the dangers of trying to disarm militias maintained by Shiite clerics who wield considerable influence in Iraq's largest religious group. The U.S.-led coalition has banned private militias and is committed to disarming them.

The three Americans who were killed came from the 101st Airborne Division, according to Maj. Mike Escudie of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. Seven Americans were wounded, U.S. officials said.

Eight of the Iraqi gunmen died and up to 18 were wounded in the battle, which started about midnight Thursday and continued intermittently until late Friday morning.

Pentagon (news - web sites) officials said they were investigating how the shooting began. Iraqis insisted the Americans fired first.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. George Krivo said the trouble began when a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol found gunmen in front of a mosque after the nighttime curfew. The 9 p.m. curfew was imposed in Karbala this week after clashes between supporters of rival Shiite clerics.

However, gunmen who said they took part in Friday's fighting said the battle began outside the house of Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud al-Hassani, less than half a mile from the mosque. The house also served as the ayatollah's headquarters.

Pentagon officials said al-Hassani's guards were believed involved in the shooting. The ayatollah's followers said he and his family were taken to a safe place Friday morning.

Malik Kazim, a gunman who said he participated in the battle, said the fighting involved armored vehicles and Humvees that passed al-Hassani's headquarters. At least 20 gunmen were guarding the offices.

The U.S.-Iraqi patrol ordered the gunmen to go inside. When they refused, a shootout ensued with intense gunfire, including small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, Kazim said.

Most of the violence directed against Americans has come from the minority Sunni Muslim community, which formed the base of Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s regime. The spread of anti-American violence into the Shiite community, which comprises about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, would present a grave challenge to the United States as it strives to implement a political program to give Iraq a democratically elected government by the end of next year.

The fall of Saddam's brutal regime in April gave the Shiites political empowerment after centuries on the sidelines under the rule of Sunni Arabs, British occupiers after World War I and some 400 years of Sunni Ottoman Turkish rule before them.

The Shiite rise has also deepened differences among rival Shiite factions, with senior clerics vying for influence and prestige.

Although many leading Shiite clerics have avoided openly challenging U.S. rule, concern has risen about the activities of Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose public hostility to the occupation is considered a threat by Washington.

In a sermon Friday, al-Sadr said he was prepared to support the U.S.-picked Governing Council if L. Paul Bremer, the top American official in Iraq, relinquished his veto over decisions by the council and if the 25-member body represented more parties.

If his demands were met, al-Sadr said he would withdraw his plan to declare his own rival government. Al-Sadr also called for an independent committee led by a cleric to investigate recent Shiite-Shiite clashes in Karbala, for which he blamed the Americans.

Despite U.S. opposition to private militias, Shiites insist they had no choice but to arm themselves because the coalition cannot guarantee law and order.

Abu Ali, an aide of Ayatollah al-Hassani, said his group took up weapons after the Aug. 29 assassination in the holy Shiite city of Najaf of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, one of the country's most prominent Shiite clerics. Ali also spoke of "Wahhabi threats against our master" a reference to Wahhabi Sunni Muslims, longtime rivals of the Shiites.

U.S. occupation authorities agreed to allow senior Shiite clerics to maintain a 12-member personal security detail. Al-Hassani is a lesser-known cleric who came to Karbala from Baghdad after Saddam's overthrow.


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