In the early hours Sunday, U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with gunmen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, killing at least eight Iraqis in an east Baghdad slum. The clash was certain to raise tension between U.S. and Iraqi security forces and followers of al-Sadr who is building opposition to the country's new constitution, which will be voted on in a national referendum Oct. 15.
The attack on the three-vehicle convoy of commandos, also wounded 19, including at least 11 members of the elite unit, said Capt. Nabil Abdel-Qader.
The bombing in Hillah, a mixed Sunni-Shiite city about 60 miles south of Baghdad, wounded 48 people near the music shop, according to Dr. Mazen Abdul-Sada of Hillah General Hospital. Ultraconservative religious figures have deemed some music on sale in the country offensive to their interpretation of Islam.
In related developments:
The overnight fighting in Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite slum in the eastern part of the capital, erupted 1 a.m. Sunday. Police Maj. Falah al-Mohamadawi said a U.S. patrol came under fire as it entered the district to arrest members of the al-Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to al-Sadr. He said U.S. forces returned fire, killing at least eight Shiite gunmen and wounding five.
Shiite cleric Amer al-Hussainy, a top al-Sadr aide in Baghdad, said, however, that only three gunmen were killed. The five other deaths were civilians, including a woman, who were struck by stray rounds, he said.
U.S. military officials declined to specify whether fighting occurred in Sadr City. Master Sgt. Greg Kaufman, a U.S. military spokesman, said a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol came under fire and there were several "engagements" in the area. "There were some anti-Iraqi forces killed," he said, adding that the number of dead was not known.
The clash introduced another potential obstacle to Shiite unity on the constitution with the nationwide referendum on the new charter just three weeks away.
On Saturday, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told a crowd of about 2,000 supporters that "it is our religious duty to say 'yes' to the constitution and to go to ballot boxes." SCIRI is the most powerful Shiite political organization in the country.
Al-Hakim, speaking during a ceremony marking the 1991 Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein, said militants and former regime supporters were trying to undermine Iraqis' hopes for security.
His appeal came just two days after Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also directed his followers to back the charter.
Al-Sistani's endorsement is seen as key to solidifying Shiites support for the basic law. If two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject it, a new government must be formed and the process of writing the constitution starts over.
Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which forms the core support network for the country's violent insurgency, has opposed the constitution, pointing specifically to clauses addressing the issue of federalism and Iraq's Arab identity, which they want to be clearly reflected in the new charter.
Minority Sunni Arabs are dominant in four provinces and could defeat the new charter should they vote "no" as a bloc in three of them. On Saturday, Sunni clerics and tribal leaders meeting in Jordan for security reasons expressed optimism they could do just that while gathered at a meeting organized to scuttle the charter.
The three-day meeting ended with a communique urging a 'no' vote "if the constitution's main points on Iraq's unity and Arab identity are not rectified, as well as articles related to political and racial segregation."
Al-Sadr, whose al-Mahdi Army has refrained from confrontations with the U.S. military since their last battle in August 2004, also sided with the Sunnis in objecting to the constitution.
Overcoming opposition from Sadr is also seen as key to securing the necessary votes.
But the task has become increasingly difficult after British forces arrested two al-Mahdi Army officials in the southern city of Basra about a week ago. Militiamen and residents also clashed with British troops days later after two British soldiers were detained by Iraqi authorities.
Britain subsequently launched a raid to free the men, who were disguised as Arabs at the time of their arrest. The operation heightened tensions in the city, about 340 miles south of Baghdad, and an Iraqi judge has issued a homicide warrant for their arrest.
British officials say the warrant is illegal under Iraqi law, and that their personnel are immune to prosecution in Iraq.