Shiite gunmen, Iraqi forces clash


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Armed followers of Shiite cleric Mahmoud al-Hassani opened fire on Iraqi forces with rifles and grenade launchers yesterday after the army raided his offices in Karbala.

At least four men were killed during an extended gunfight, and 50 of al-Hassani's followers were detained. Iraqi police closed off the city and imposed a three-day curfew. The fighting came on a day of violent clashes around Iraq.

Al-Hassani, who claims to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is a controversial figure because of his criticism of other more influential Shiite clergymen, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The clash began after the Iraqi army tried to seize an empty building next to al-Hassani's headquarters, leading to a raid on his office.

"We had fears that we might be targeted through this building," said an al-Hassani follower.

In the northern city of Mosul, a cement truck loaded with explosives detonated yesterday outside the headquarters of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's party, killing at least eight members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and injuring 37 others.

Flames engulfed at least a dozen cars.

Also yesterday, U.S. military officials reversed their earlier denial of an Iraqi police claim that an insurgent attack caused a series of explosions Sunday that killed 63 people.

Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said Monday that an internal gas explosion was the cause of the deaths, but the military said yesterday that two car bombs ruptured a gas line and triggered a series of other explosions.

In the southern city of Basra, demonstrators protested for the second day over gas shortages in the oil-rich region, burning tires and demanding that the government solve their energy woes.

British troops said three of their bases were targeted by Katyusha rockets but reported no casualties.

While protesters took to the streets in Basra, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with Jordanian dignitaries in the capital to announce a new agreement to provide cheaper petroleum products in exchange for greater cooperation on cultural, economic and security matters. Jordan has played a key role in combating insurgents who have used the neighboring Arab state as a staging area for attacks against Iraq.

Al-Maliki's Cabinet also announced a $213 million deal with two other Iraqi neighbors, Turkey and Iran, to purchase more gasoline and diesel imports. Iraq's oil reserves are among the world's largest, but insurgent attacks on the nation's aging infrastructure have crippled the government's ability to provide fuel to the domestic market.

Elsewhere yesterday in Iraq:

A shoulder-fired rocket damaged a U.S. Humvee in Fallujah, sparking a melee between Marines and gunmen that left one Iraqi dead. Iraqi police said that three Marines were injured.

In Baqouba, a bomb struck an Iraqi police convoy, killing one officer and injuring two others.

In Muqdadiya, 60 miles northeast of the capital, gunmen shot to death three bakers who made bread for the Iraqi army.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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