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Armed Shiites Killed in Baghdad En Route to Anti-Israel Display

By Kirk Semple
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BAGHDAD, IRAQ

U.S. troops opened fire Thursday on a vehicle carrying armed Shiites to an anti-Israel demonstration in Baghdad, killing as many as two occupants and wounding others, officials said.

While details of the incident remained murky late Thursday, the U.S. military command said in a statement that the occupants of the van had first fired at the watchtower of a U.S. military base near the town of Mahmoudiya.

U.S. troops returned fire, the statement said, and more than an hour later, Iraqi troops at a checkpoint captured the van and found two dead men in the back with AK-47 and PKC assault rifles.

An official at the Interior Ministry said the vehicles’ occupants were followers of the militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has called for a mass demonstration on Friday against Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon. Charismatic and decidedly anti-American, al-Sadr counts millions of disaffected poor Shiites among his constituency.

According to the ministry official, one person was killed in the incident and 16 were wounded.

Mahmoudiya has been a harrowing location for U.S. troops in recent months. Four U.S. soldiers and one former soldier have been accused of raping a 14-year-old girl there and killing her and three family members.

The van was passing through Mahmoudiya on its way to Baghdad from the southern Shiite town of Hilla, said Sahib al-Ameri, an official in al-Sadr’s movement.

The shooting comes at a time of rising tensions between the U.S. military and al-Sadr’s organization. In recent weeks, U.S. and Iraqi forces have conducted a series of raids on bases of al-Sadr’s restless militia, the Mahdi Army, and have arrested high-ranking militia leaders.

Thousands of al-Sadr’s supporters from Shiite-dominated cities in southern Iraq began converging on the capital on Thursday in anticipation of the rally. They boarded buses decorated with pictures of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, which set off the current fighting with a cross-border raid. The Sadr supporters waved Iraqi and Hezbollah flags, and chanted “Death to America! Death to Israel!” wire service reports said.

Israel’s offensive in Lebanon is highly unpopular among Iraqis, and al-Sadr was among the first politicians to condemn Israel’s actions publicly, warning last month that his followers would “not sit by with folded hands before the creep of Zionism.”