BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Classes had just ended, children were milling outside, and the elementary school’s five male teachers had just gotten into a van to head home when the cars pulled up, full of men wearing Iraqi police uniforms.

But they weren’t police. The nine gunmen – apparently Sunni insurgents – pulled the teachers and their driver from the van, while the school’s few women teachers fled. They dragged the men into an empty classroom, lined them against the wall and mowed them down with automatic weapons.

The dead in Monday’s attack were all Shiite Muslims, the latest victims of the mounting sectarian killings in Iraq ahead of a crucial referendum on a new constitution that has sharply divided Sunnis and Shiites.

The slayings at the Al-Jazeera Elementary School in the village of Muelha were particularly stunning because most of the children in the teachers’ classes were Sunnis. Muelha, like many of the towns dotting the area south of Baghdad, has a mixed population of Shiites and Sunnis.

The mix has made the region a tinderbox of frequent shootings and bombings, mostly by Sunni insurgents targeting Shiite civilians, earning it the nickname of the Triangle of Death.

Violence continued elsewhere Monday, with a suicide bombing and roadside bombings killing 10 Iraqis and three Americans in and around Baghdad – bringing to at least 52 the number of people killed in the past two days. Near the southern city of Basra, an official in a leading Shiite political party was kidnapped and his bullet-riddled body dumped on a roadside.

The Iraqi and U.S. governments have warned that Sunni Arab insurgents are likely to increase their attacks before the Oct. 15 referendum.

Shiite leaders have been calling on their followers to refrain from revenge attacks against Sunnis, fearing a civil war could result, though Sunnis have accused Shiite militias of carrying out some killings of Sunni figures.

But in one of the first public calls for individual Shiites to take action, one of Iraq’s most prominent Shiite clerics, Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yaaqubi, issued a religious edict Monday allowing his followers to “kill terrorists before they kill.”

“Self-restraint does not mean surrender. … Protecting society from terrorists is a religious duty,” al-Yaaqubi said. He also called on Shiites to “deepen dialogue with Sunnis” who are not “terrorists or Saddamists.”

Earlier this month, al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, declared “all-out war” on Shiites and vowed to kill anyone participating in the referendum.

Leaders of Iraq’s Sunni minority are calling on their followers to vote against the constitution and defeat a charter they believe will fracture the country and seal the domination of the Shiite majority.

U.S. and Iraqi officials tried to rally Sunni support for the referendum by releasing 500 detainees from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad to mark the coming Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a step called for by Sunni leaders.

There have been few attacks on schools, which have little protection – though children are constant witnesses to, and sometimes victims of, the violence.

Hours after the school shooting in Muelha, 30 miles south of Baghdad, a suicide bomber struck in the nearby town of Iskandariyah, detonating a car in the market. Six people were wounded, Police Capt. Adel Ketab said. A day earlier, a bomb on a bicycle ripped through a market in Musayyib, just south of Muelha, killing at least six.

Farther south, gunmen on Monday assassinated a senior Shiite official from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in the town of Qurna, near Basra, said Haytham al-Hussein, an aide to the leader of the party, one of the main factions in the government.

The gunmen kidnapped Azhar Qassem Abdul Wahid as he was leaving SCIRI headquarters, Police Cap. Mushtaq Kadhim said. His body was later found handcuffed on the side of a road.

In Baghdad, a suicide car bomber attacked a police checkpoint guarding the oil ministry and several other government buildings, hitting a private bus carrying 24 ministry employees to work, said police Capt. Nabil Abdel Qadir.

The blast killed at least seven policemen and three people on the bus and wounded 36 people, Qadir said.

A roadside bombing in western Baghdad killed two American soldiers, and a third U.S. soldier was killed in a bombing about 50 miles southeast of the capital, the military said. The deaths raised to 1,917 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

In the north, a top aide to al-Zarqawi surrendered to police in the city of Mosul, Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Ali Attalah said. The aide, Abdul Rahman Hasan Shahin, was one of the most wanted figures in Mosul, Attalah said.

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