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Iraqi Pilgrims Attacked; 2 GIs Killed

A sniper killed a Shiite pilgrim on a Baghdad bridge Monday while another was killed and six injured in other attacks as tens of thousands of faithful made their way to the southern city of Karbala for a major religious commemoration.

Also Monday, the U.S. military said two soldiers were killed the day before in fighting in the Salahuddin province.

The statement did not give a precise location but the province includes Samarra, where insurgents attacked a U.S. outpost Sunday, triggering gun battles that ended when a U.S. jet bombed a house where gunmen had taken refuge. Iraqi officials said seven people, two of them children, were killed.

Iraqi security forces have mounted a major operation to protect Shiite pilgrims. Sunni religious extremists, including al Qaeda in Iraq, have launched massive and deadly attacks against pilgrims during Shiite celebrations in the past.

Despite the security measures, one pilgrim was shot on Baghdad's Jadiriyah bridge and gunmen hiding in an orchard south of the capital opened fire on another group, killing one and injuring three others.

Three more pilgrims were injured when gunmen attacked them in a drive-by shooting in southwestern Baghdad and police prevented another attack, defusing two roadside bombs planted along the route to Karbala in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad, officials said.

More than a million Shiites from throughout the world were expected to converge on the Shiite holy city for the celebrations, which reach their high point late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The Shabaniyah festival marks the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th and last Shiite imam who disappeared in the 9th century.

Security concerns are running high, in part because of the political deadlock that has paralyzed the government only weeks before U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus report to Congress on progress here since the arrival of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops.

Key Democrats including Sen. Hillary Clinton have called for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be replaced because his Shiite-dominated government has been unable to forge national unity.

In other developments:

  • French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday he was willing to apologize if Iraq's prime minister felt he had meddled too much in Iraqi affairs during a visit last week to Baghdad. After the trip, Kouchner was quoted by Newsweek magazine as saying the Iraqi government was "not functioning." He was also was quoted as saying he told Secretary of State Rice that there was strong support in Iraq for replacing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and told her "he's got to be replaced." Al-Maliki demanded an apology on Sunday.
  • Congress should continue to push for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq regardless of what top military advisers say in their progress report next month, Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards said Sunday on Face The Nation. "I think they should not submit a single funding bill to the president for the war that doesn't have a timetable for withdrawal," Edwards told Bob Schieffer.
  • Shiite militiamen from the Mahdi Army took over the police joint command center in Basra on Sunday after British soldiers withdrew from the facility and handed control to the Iraqi police, witnesses said. Police left the building when the militiamen, loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, arrived. The militia was still controlling the facility as of late afternoon.
  • In a late meeting Sunday, top government leaders said they had found common ground on some main issues standing in the way of reconciliation.

    But the meeting, attended by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, failed to win a pledge by the main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, to return to the government. This month's Sunni decision to bolt al-Maliki's government plunged the country into a political crisis.

    The meeting brought al-Maliki together with fellow Shiite Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the head of the northern autonomous Kurdish region Massoud Barzani and President Jalal Talabani, who is also a Kurd.

    They said they agreed on some issues that the U.S. has set as benchmarks for progress, among them holding provincial elections, releasing prisoners held without charge and changing the law preventing many former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from holding government jobs and elected office.

    But no details were released and committees must hash out final versions of legislation to be presented to parliament. Iraqi officials have announced similar deals in the past, only to have them fall apart.

    Nevertheless, White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore called the resolution an "important agreement."

    It is "an important symbol of their commitment to work together for the benefit of all Iraqis," she said in an e-mail statement. "We will continue to support these brave leaders and all the Iraqi people in their efforts to overcome the forces of terror who seek to overwhelm Iraq's democracy."

    Before the meeting, al-Maliki lashed out at American critics, saying Clinton and other Democrats who have called for his ouster should "come to their senses" and stop treating Iraq like "one of their villages."

    He also lambasted the U.S. military for raids in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, adding new strains ahead of next month's showdown in Washington over the future of the U.S. mission.

    The grim combination of ongoing violence and political deadlock have increased frustration in both Washington and Baghdad, with American lawmakers increasingly critical of al-Maliki's performance and Iraqi leaders growing weary of what they consider unfair U.S. criticism.

    Clinton and Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have called for al-Maliki to be replaced.

    "There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin. They should come to their senses," al-Maliki said at a news conference.

    Al-Maliki denounced recent U.S. military actions in the Baghdad Shiite neighborhoods of Shula and Sadr City that according to the Iraqis resulted in civilian deaths. The U.S. military said eight "terrorists" were killed but no civilians.

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