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Iraqis blame revenge killings after 4 found hanged

BAGHDAD -- Scorched pavement, destroyed shops, burned out cars, and four men shot in the head then hanged from electricity pylons -- apparent victims of revenge killings -- awaited Shi'ite residents emerging from their homes yesterday in Baghdad's Sadr City slum.

The scene, although gruesome, was not what many had feared: that deadly explosions the previous night in Sadr City would ignite a civil war, pitting majority Shi'ites against minority Sunnis.

Two car bombers and four mortar rounds shattered shops and market stalls at nightfall Sunday when residents were buying groceries for their evening meal. At least 58 people were killed and more than 200 wounded.

A key to yesterday's relative peace was anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's refusal to be provoked. With thousands of his Mahdi Army militiamen ready to fight, the Shi'ite leader called for calm and national unity. It was the second time in less than three weeks that Iraqis stood at the precipice of civil war but pulled back.

Britain, the largest US military partner in Iraq, showed its confidence in Iraqis' ability to maintain security yesterday by announcing a 10 percent -- about 800-troop -- reduction by May.

''This is a significant reduction, which is based largely on the ability of the Iraqis themselves to participate and defend themselves against terrorism, but there is a long, long way to go," John Reid, Britain's defense secretary, said in London.

Washington hopes to begin withdrawing some of its troops by this summer if a new Iraqi government is in place and judged sufficiently in control.

Bomb blasts and shootings in Baghdad and north of the capital, many of them targeting Iraqi police patrols, killed at least 15 people yesterday and wounded more than 40. The victims included a US soldier who died in a roadside bombing, the military said. A US Marine was reported killed Sunday in Anbar Province, which has been plagued by insurgent violence.

The American deaths brought the number of US military members killed to at least 2,308 since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Police and Sheik Amer al-Husseini, a senior aide to Sadr, said the four men shot and hanged in Sadr City were captured by members of the cleric's militia.

''We know nothing about their nationalities but residents reported that they were arrested yesterday by Mahdi Army," said police Lieutenant Laith Abdul-Aal. ''Two of them were wearing explosive belts and two others had mortar tubes."

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