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Shiite Leader Killed In Iraq

Gunmen killed a regional leader of one of Iraq's largest Shiite parties in a drive-by shooting south of Baghdad Wednesday in a slaying party officials blamed on Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Elsewhere, a roadside bomb exploded in a market north of Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least six Iraqis and wounding nine. Hospital officials said the bombing occurred in Khan Bani Saad, about 6 miles south of Baqouba.

Gunmen drove up beside the car of Ali al-Khalisi, the head of Diyala province for the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and opened fire in the town of Mahmoudiya, 25 miles south of Baghdad, Iraqi officials said.

Officials with the Shiite Muslim party blamed Saddam Hussein loyalists and insurgents for the assassination of al-Khalisi, the second SCIRI official killed recently. Abd el-Oun Hassan, the head of Shiite party's Musayyib office, was gunned down by militants last month.

"It must be terror gangs who try to halt the political process in this country," party spokesman Haitham al-Husseini said of al-Khalisi's killing. "Remnants of the former regime and extremists have set out to exterminate political figures who work for this country's interest."

Al-Khalisi also headed SCIRI's militia in the Diyala province, known as the Badr Brigade, an anti-Saddam group. Run by former Governing Council member Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, SCIRI maintains close ties to Iran.

In other recent developments:

  • Basra's deputy governor, a key lieutenant of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, escaped an assassination attempt Wednesday. A police source says a gunman followed Salam al-Maliky from al-Sadr's office to Basra's City Hall, where shots were fired but missed al-Maliky. The alleged gunman was arrested. Al-Maliky has previously threatened to blow up oil pipelines and ports if a coalition offensive on al-Sadr's militia does not stop. He also warned that he would lead a drive for Basra and other southern areas to secede from Iraq.
  • On Tuesday, a roadside bomb went off as a U.S. military vehicle drove by in central Baghdad, slightly injuring two soldiers.
  • A Lebanese businessman was freed Tuesday after about one week in captivity in Iraq, his father said. Robert Antoun said his son Antoine contacted him from the Iraqi capital, saying he was safe and in good health.
  • The U.S. military said that a Saudi man held at a U.S. detention camp near the southern city of Umm Qasr escaped. The man, identified as Abdullah Salem al-Kahtani, broke out of Camp Bucca on Thursday. He is believed to have fled from the camp, where the U.S. military is holding about 2,500 security detainees, and crossed the nearby border into Kuwait, according to media reports Tuesday.

    Iraq's Shiites have emerged from decades of oppression by a Sunni Arab minority when Saddam Hussein's regime fell more than 15 months ago. As the majority, they are now poised to dominate the country politically after a general election due in January.

    Earlier this week, Iraq's South Oil Co. sharply curtailed oil production after al-Sadr's supporters threatened to attack oil pipelines unless the government halted exports. Iraq's other export line in the north is already out of operation.

    But production resumed in its vast southern oil fields on Tuesday after authorities reached an accord with al-Sadr supporters, an Iraqi oil official told The Associated Press late Tuesday.

    "It slowed down considerably. Now it is resuming full blast," said the official, speaking to AP from Baghdad on condition of anonymity.

    Oil markets welcomed the news, with U.S. crude futures falling by 44 cents a barrel in late New York trading.

    Iraq has the world's second-largest proven crude reserves, most of them in the southern region, and oil is the country's only major source of export earnings needed to rebuild its devastated economy.

    The Iraqi official credited South Oil's general director Jabbar El-Leaby with having reached an agreement with al-Sadr's supporters.

    "They maintain good relations with him, and they respect him. He's from the South and is a Shia and has every kind of qualification to tackle the problem," the official said.

    In the holy city of Najaf, U.S. forces sent patrols armed with loudspeakers into the streets Tuesday to demand that militants loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drop their arms and leave Najaf immediately or face death.

    The call, broadcast in Arabic from American vehicles, added a psychological component to the U.S. offensive. It came as U.S. helicopter gunships pummeled a multistoried building 400 yards from the gold-domed Imam Ali Shrine with rockets, missiles and 30 mm cannons - one of the closest strikes yet to what is one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam.

    Plumes of thick, black smoke rose from the building, which serves as a hotel for visitors to the shrine. Witnesses said insurgents were firing from inside it and that U.S. forces returned fire.

    Nearby, Bradley fighting vehicles swept through a huge cemetery, pursuing small pockets of militants hiding in elaborate concrete tombs. Choppers provided support, firing rockets from above, witnesses said.

    Despite the violence, Marines said the clashes were much lighter than in recent days - though few expected it to stay that way. "I think it's the quiet before the storm," Holahan said.

    The U.S. military has estimated that 360 insurgents were killed in Najaf between Thursday, when fighting began, and Sunday night, a figure the militants dispute. Five U.S. troops have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers.

    The fighting has plagued other Shiite communities across Iraq.

    In Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, groups of three to five Mahdi Army militants attacked a district council hall repeatedly with mortars, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, clashing with U.S. and Iraqi forces, said U.S. Capt. Brian O'Malley of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.

    The Health Ministry said the skirmish killed one person and wounded 18. Other clashes in Baghdad killed a second person and wounded 11 others.

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