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Scores Reported Dead In Iraqi Protests over Slain Shiite Cleric

By John Daniszewski
Los Angeles Times
CAIRO, Egypt

Iraqi security forces fought for the third day Monday to quell demonstrations ignited by the murder of a senior Shiite Muslim cleric, opposition spokesmen said, and some reports indicated scores of people dead and more than 700 arrested.

Reports from Iraqi opposition groups in neighboring countries and the West spoke of a string of spontaneous protests from the Shiite slums of Baghdad to a half-dozen predominantly Shiite cities and towns in central and southern Iraq in what appeared to be the most significant internal challenge to President Saddam Hussein's regime in eight years.

In Baghdad, the government continued to reject as "completely unfounded" all claims of unrest. "A figment of the imagination," Uday Tai, director of the state-run Iraqi News Agency, said Monday.

The regime's public reactions barring journalists from areas of reported unrest, broadcasting television footage designed to refute the allegations of disturbances, and laying the blame for the cleric's murder on foreign forces nevertheless suggested a government at least concerned about an overflow of public anger following the killing of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr.

According to the opposition, there have been riots or disturbances outside Baghdad in the cities of Najaf, Karbala, Nassariya and Hilla and in many smaller towns and villages in Basra and Babil provinces. Government forces have withdrawn from some sites, including Haniya near Basra and Majer in Mara province, in order to avoid clashes with demonstrators.

These disturbances are the first sign of widespread unrest in Iraq since March and April of 1991, when Hussein's Republican Guards put down a Shiite uprising in southern and central Iraq that followed Baghdad's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Although the unrest so far does not seem to constitute a serious threat to the regime, it comes at a time when Hussein's government's usual iron grip on power is under strain and may be in danger of fraying.

Just two months ago, the regime endured a four-day Anglo-American bombing campaign that hit at strategic assets across Iraq in retaliation for Iraq's blocking of U.N. weapons inspections.