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Suspected Shiite militia fighters attack military bases in southern Iraq; 5 civilians killed

BAGHDAD — Suspected Shiite militiamen fired mortars at two military bases and shot at a Polish helicopter south of Baghdad during clashes Monday that killed as many as five Iraqi civilians, including two children, and wounded 20, officials said.

Two Polish soldiers suffered minor injuries in the clashes in Diwaniyah, a mainly Shiite city 80 miles south of Baghdad, the Polish Defense Ministry said.

In Baghdad, a parked car bomb exploded near an amusement park in the evening, killing at least six people and wounding 25, as families were going home after relaxing on a Muslim holiday, police said. The casualties included women and youths.

The fighting in Diwaniyah began when fighters from the Mahdi Army militia fired four mortar rounds at the main U.S. and Polish base and nine rounds at a patrol base manned mainly by Iraqis and Polish troops, an Iraqi military official said.

U.S.-led forces fired back with six or seven artillery rounds, and both sides traded small-arms fire, the official said. A curfew has been imposed on four districts in the city known to be dominated by the Mahdi Army.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said three Iraqi civilians were killed and 21 wounded in the crossfire.

A policeman, who also declined to be identified because of security concerns, said Mahdi Army fighters emerged from alleys after the mortar attack and swarmed the smaller base, which had been set up in a youth center, prompting clashes that lasted about 30 minutes. He also said U.S. attack helicopters had opened fire. The U.S. military said it was looking into the report.

The officer said five Iraqi civilians were killed and 27 wounded, while the Polish Defense Ministry put the casualty toll at four Iraqi civilians killed and 17 wounded. The conflicting casualty reports could not be reconciled.

Lt. Col. Wlodzimierz Glogowski, spokesman for the Polish force in Diwaniyah, said a Polish helicopter came under machine-gun fire and two Polish soldiers had been slightly wounded.

He said Polish and Iraqi troops at the patrol base had fired back at the militants, but the civilian casualties were from the mortar fire.

Diwaniyah has recently been the scene of frequent clashes between rival Shiite factions competing for influence in the oil-rich southern region. The rivalries and violence are threatening to destabilize the region and overshadow progress U.S. forces have made against al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremists.

Roadside bombs killed two southern provincial governors in August, including the governor of the Qadisiyah province of which Diwaniyah is the capital. More than 50 people also were killed in clashes during a major Shiite pilgrimage in the holy city of Karbala.

The Mahdi Army is nominally loyal to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but violence also has been blamed on breakaway factions.

Al-Sadr's office blamed the Americans for the attacks, saying civilians were targeted by aircraft. It also demanded the Iraqi government step in and stop military operations in the area, according to a statement.

The car bomb near the amusement park exploded in the religiously mixed neighborhood of Harthiyah, considered one of the capital's safer districts, and the six dead and 25 wounded, police said.

The car was apparently left on a side street with several other cars — about 900 yards from the amusement park — to avoid a parking ban on Baghdad's main streets designed to prevent such bombings. Many of the businesses on the street were closed for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

About 15 minutes later, a roadside bomb struck a police vehicle in central Baghdad's predominantly Shiite area of Karradah, wounding three policemen and a bystander, authorities said.

Also Monday, a priest from a Catholic church in Mosul said he gave out incorrect information that two kidnapped priests had been freed. The Rev. Shamoun Matti said he was initially told by relatives of the priests that they were to be freed Sunday, and that he had mistakenly assumed the release had occurred.

A second official at the church, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the kidnappers had contacted the church at least three times Monday and were demanding $1 million ransom. "Negotiations with the kidnappers are still going on," the official said.

Pope Benedict XVI appealed Sunday for the release of the priests who were ambushed, dragged out of their car and seized on their way home from a funeral. The pope asked the kidnappers to "let the two religious men go" during his traditional Sunday blessing in St. Peter's Square.

The Christian community in Iraq is about 3 percent of the country's estimated 26 million people.

In other violence Monday, an Iraqi journalist was killed in an ambush in northern Iraq, the second such attack in as many days.

Dhi Abdul-Razak al-Dibo, a 32-year-old freelance reporter, was attacked by gunmen as he was driving his BMW with two guards near Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, Kirkuk police spokesman Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said. The two guards were wounded.

Al-Dibo's family said he lived in Kirkuk and contributed stories to at least two weekly newspapers in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad. The relatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they feared reprisals, said al-Dibo is survived by his wife.

The attack occurred a day after an Iraqi reporter for The Washington Post was shot to death in Baghdad.

Salih Saif Aldin, 32, an Iraqi who sometimes wrote under the name Salih Dehema for security reasons, was killed Sunday while reporting on the violence in the neighborhood of Sadiyah, the newspaper said.

Sadiyah is a formerly religiously mixed neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad that is now dominated by Shiites after most Sunnis were driven out by sectarian violence.

Excluding the latest deaths reported, at least 118 journalists and 41 media support workers have been killed in Iraq since the war started in March 2003, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

On the political front, a leader from Iraq's largest Shiite party paid a rare visit to Sunni-dominated Anbar province on Sunday, delivering a message of unity to tribal sheiks who have staged a U.S.-backed revolt against al-Qaida militants.

Ammar al-Hakim was welcomed to Ramadi by the leader of parliament's largest Sunni Arab bloc, Adnan al-Dulaimi, as a "good initiative, saying Shiite-Sunni reconciliation was a goal cherished by his once-dominant Sunni Arab minority.

"This is what we hope, and we pray to Allah for," al-Dulaimi, whose three-party alliance has 44 of parliament's 275 seats, told The Associated Press. "We pray to God to make our Shiite brothers ... give us our due rights and not monopolize power."

Al-Hakim's visit to Anbar was the latest sign that key Iraqi politicians may be working toward reconciliation independently of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which has faced criticism for doing little to bring together Iraq's Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis.

A senior American military official, Maj. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, attended the meeting, an indication of the significance attached by Washington to the issue of national reconciliation it has long pressed al-Maliki to move faster on.

Associated Press writers Yahya Barzanji in Kirkuk, Hamza Hendawi in Baghdad and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.