BAGHDAD, Iraq - Angry followers of Muqtada al-Sadr - the militant Shiite Muslim cleric whom U.S. officials have vowed to capture or kill - gathered in the southern city of Basra yesterday and blamed occupying British forces for a series of gruesome bombings Wednesday that killed dozens of residents, including 20 children on their way to school.
Authorities say the explosions outside four Iraqi police installations were the result of five suicide car bombs. The coordinated blasts were being investigated to determine who was responsible, officials said.
Meanwhile, al-Sadr's allies have helped spread rumors that British missiles fired from helicopters caused the disaster - a claim that, however untrue, has resonated with some people in Basra, which has been one of Iraq's calmer cities since the U.S.-led invasion. Similar rumors blaming American forces surfaced after previous car-bomb attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere.
"The sons of Basra have evidence that the British troops are involved in these explosions," Abdulsattar Bahadli, al-Sadr's representative in the city, told several hundred people between burial ceremonies.
British and U.S. authorities called the claim preposterous and assailed al-Sadr's group for spreading lies and seeking political advantage in the widespread grief over the massacre.
"This is just utterly ridiculous," said Capt. Hisham Halawi, a spokesman for British forces in Basra. "These attacks were carried out by terrorists who have no regard for life whatever."
U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a military spokesman in Baghdad, denounced al-Sadr's "thuggish" behavior and accused the cleric of trying to "turn that grief of the crowd into mob violence."
Nonetheless, that many Shiites appear ready to embrace conspiracy theories propounded by al-Sadr demonstrates anew the broad sway that the young cleric exercises among Iraq's Shiite masses. Basra, like much of Iraq's south, is overwhelmingly Shiite.
Al-Sadr's popularity - especially among the poor - has aided recruitment for his al-Mahdi militia, which controls substantial parts of such cities as Najaf, Karbala and Kut. U.S. officials moved against al-Sadr this month after thousands of his followers stormed police stations and government buildings in major cities, leading to deadly clashes with troops from the U.S.-led coalition.
About 2,500 U.S. troops were deployed outside the Shiite holy city of Najaf early this month in what had been described as an effort to apprehend or kill al-Sadr. Since then, tensions have eased somewhat in the Najaf area, officials said, and plans to move against al-Sadr have been put on hold.
Still, officials say the troops remain ready, if called on, to confront al-Sadr, who has been holed up in Najaf, and his fighters.
U.S. officials are concerned that a confrontation with al-Sadr and his militia could result in considerable civilian deaths - and further alienate Iraq's Shiite majority.
In Basra, authorities reduced the death toll yesterday. The attacks are now thought to have killed 50 people, including 20 youngsters in two school buses that were passing by just as one of the bombs detonated.
Meanwhile in Fallujah, U.S. Marines warned insurgents that they have only days to hand over their heavy weapons or face a possible attack. The insurgents have turned in mainly dud rockets, rusty mortar shells and grenades labeled "inert."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.