BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Clashes erupted between rival Shiite groups across the Shiite-dominated south Wednesday, threatening Iraq with yet another crisis at a time when politicians are struggling to end a constitutional stalemate with Sunni Arabs.

The confrontation in at least five southern cities – involving a radical Shiite leader who led two uprisings against U.S. forces last year – followed the boldest assault by Sunni insurgents in weeks in the capital.

Dozens of insurgents wearing black uniforms and masks attacked Iraqi police in western Baghdad with multiple car bombs and small-arms fire that killed at least 13 people and wounded 43, police said.

The new violence came as the Pentagon announced it was ordering 1,500 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division to Iraq to provide security for the scheduled Oct. 15 referendum on the proposed constitution and the December national elections.

Trouble in the south began when supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr tried to reopen his office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, which was closed after the end of fighting there last year.

When Shiites opposed to al-Sadr tried to block the move, fights broke out. Four people were killed, 20 were injured and al-Sadr’s office was set on fire, police said.

That enraged al-Sadr’s followers, who blamed the country’s biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.

The party, which controls key posts in the national government, quickly denied responsibility and condemned the attack. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a member of SCIRI, told Iraqiya television he was dispatching a commando brigade to Najaf to restore order. A curfew was imposed from 11 p.m.

Despite the government’s move, 21 pro-al-Sadr members of parliament and three senior Cabinet officials announced they would refuse to perform their duties indefinitely to protest the Najaf attack.

Municipal officials loyal to al-Sadr in several southern cities issued similar declarations.

As word of the Najaf attack spread, clashes broke out between the two Shiite rival groups across central and southern Iraq. The violence extended to the country’s second largest city, Basra, where several hardline Shiite groups are competing for influence.

Fighting was reported in at least six Basra neighborhoods as al-Sadr’s followers attacked SCIRI offices and the headquarters of SCIRI’s Badr Brigade militia, setting it ablaze, police said. Al-Sadr’s headquarters in Basra was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, according to police.

In Amarah, eight mortar shells were fired at the SCIRI office, and a dozen pro-al-Sadr officials announced they were also suspending work. Gunmen from al-Sadr’s militia roamed the streets. Clashes were also reported in Kut, where a SCIRI-owned building was torched, and in Nasiriyah.

Faced with yet another crisis, Prime Minster Ibrahim al-Jaafari, also a Shiite, appeared on Iraqiya television shortly before midnight to call for restraint.

“The battle should not be between the people of Iraq but against the enemies of Iraq,” al-Jaafari said, using language reserved for the insurgents. “The language of guns has gone forever.”

Al-Sadr, the 30-ish son of an eminent cleric believed to have been murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime, has been among the most outspoken Shiites opposed to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Beginning in April 2004, he led two Shiite uprisings against U.S.-led forces after the occupation authorities closed his newspaper, arrested key aides and issued a warrant charging him in the assassination of a rival cleric in Najaf.

Hundreds of American soldiers and Iraqis died in the two uprisings, which ended late last year. Since then, al-Sadr’s top aides have been released, the murder charge effectively dropped, and the fiery young cleric has emerged as a major political figure.

Although Wednesday’s clashes could end as quickly as they began, they were ominous, coming at a time when Iraq faces an increasingly bold insurgency and a difficult constitutional process that has exacerbated rather than calmed religious and ethnic tensions.

Gunmen in Khalis, a Sunni town north of Baghdad, fired on a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims home from Iran on Wednesday, killing four and wounding eight, police said.

Late Monday, parliament delayed a vote on the new constitution after Sunni Arab negotiators rejected a draft accepted by Shiite and Kurdish officials. On Wednesday, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said stability cannot be achieved without consensus among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis Arabs and Kurds. Representatives of the communities were to meet Thursday.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope a new constitution will help curb violence by luring disaffected Sunnis away from the Sunni-dominated insurgency. That would allow the United States and its partners to begin bringing their troops home starting next year.

Among the most contentious issues is a proposal to transform Iraq into a federal state, enabling the Shiites to replicate the self-ruled region which the Kurds have ruled in the north since 1991.

Sunni Arabs believe federalism would lead to the breakup of Iraq, and the specter of Shiite militias battling each other in a string of central and southern cities is unlikely to ease those fears.

The Sunnis are also insisting that the factions agree unanimously on the draft constitution. But if al-Sadr’s allies in parliament continue their boycott, it would be difficult for the draft’s supporters to argue that it had the support of all Iraqi communities.

The clashes laid bare the divisions within the Shiite community – 60 percent of the population – which pulled together to win the biggest bloc of seats in parliament during the Jan. 30 election which most Sunnis boycotted.

In Baghdad, the brazen daylight attack started about 3:15 p.m. with three car bombs – two piloted by suicide drivers – blasting police patrols in a Sunni neighborhood in the west of the capital, police said.

Gunmen then attacked with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, using what the U.S. military refers to as “swarm tactics” – an innovation by an insurgent force U.S. officials acknowledge is becoming more sophisticated.

American soldiers came under small-arms fire but suffered no casualties as they rushed to help Iraqi police, the U.S. military said. Two U.S. Apache attack helicopters circled over the battle, which lasted more than an hour.

Officials gave varying casualty figures. Police Col. Hussein Jaddou said 13 were killed and 43 wounded, including three policemen, two suicide drivers and a gunman. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said seven insurgents were killed but gave no overall figure.

As gunfire rattled through the streets of the commercial and residential district, merchants shuttered shops and pedestrians ducked for cover. Masked gunmen swaggered down the sidewalk, brandishing Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. At least one police car was set ablaze.

The insurgents may have filmed their attack, a witness said. Two young men were seen driving slowly among the insurgents, apparently recording the scenes with a TV camera.

Car bombs and assassinations occur in Baghdad almost daily. But daylight assaults by dozens of insurgents have declined sharply since Iraqi and U.S. forces regained control of the notorious Haifa Street early this year.

Earlier Wednesday, deputy justice minister Awshoo Ibrahim escaped a second assassination attempt in two days when gunmen fired at his convoy in western Baghdad, killing four bodyguards and wounding five, police said.

AP-ES-08-24-05 1914EDT


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