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Attacks mar city's shaky truce

NAJAF, Iraq -- Attackers wounded two US soldiers yesterday and mortar shells rained down on the main American base in Najaf -- separate attacks that threatened the deal aimed at ending the bloody, seven-week standoff around this Shi'ite holy city.

Masked gunmen of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia -- some with knives and hand grenades strapped around their waists -- roamed the streets of Najaf's twin city, Kufa, accusing the US-led coalition of failing to honor the agreement to halt the fighting.

The fighters accused the Americans of a provocation by sending tanks and armored vehicles into Kufa from three directions, prompting the militia to open fire ''to protect ourselves." Three Iraqis were killed and eight injured in armed clashes, hospital workers said.

In a sign of the tension, Sadr failed to appear at a Kufa mosque where he has preached every Friday -- the main Muslim day of worship -- since the rebellion began in early April. Aides said his absence was due to security concerns.

Sadr told the Al-Jazeera television network that he would abide by a cease-fire but that his militia would fight ''to the last drop of blood" if US forces encroached on holy sites.

Also yesterday, US soldiers escorted 617 prisoners away from Abu Ghraib prison. Shots rang out briefly, prompting a return volley toward nearby buildings. Amid the gunfire, some freed detainees were reunited with their families, and some told stories of abuse while in US custody.

Hassan Ali, 36, said he was held for two months in a tent with three dozen other prisoners, including many who were elderly, crippled, or sick. They were detained in cramped conditions and forced by prison guards to dance naked, he said.

''Today, I thank Allah and rejoice because I am free, but I will be happier when the Americans leave," he said.

Yesterday's release was the third major release from the facility since the scandal broke over the abuse of detainees in April. The New York Times reported today that interrogation experts from the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were dispatched to Iraq last fall and played a prominent role in training military intelligence teams at Abu Ghraib. The teams from Guantanamo, where the United States had declared that Geneva Conventions protections did not apply, operated at Abu Ghraib through December, a period when the worst abuses were taking place, senior military officials told the newspaper.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy chief of operations, reported five attacks against coalition forces in Kufa and said they ''would appear to be violations" of a deal announced by Shi'ite leaders Thursday to end fighting in the Najaf and Kufa areas.

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said in Baghdad that occupation authorities still hoped the cease-fire agreement would hold.

The coalition said it was not a party to the agreement to end the fighting in Najaf but would suspend offensive operations. However, US officials said they would continue ''security patrols."

Despite the agreement, nine mortar shells exploded early yesterday on the main US camp in the Najaf area. CNN said US soldiers arrested four suspected militiamen who alleged they were unaware of the order to stop attacks.

The US command in Baghdad confirmed two soldiers were wounded when Shi'ite gunmen fired on their Humvee on a Najaf street.

American forces could be seen near the entrances of the city. Gunmen from Sadr's militia took positions on the streets of Kufa.

Worshipers, meanwhile, converged on the city's gold-domed mosque. Thousands of worshipers -- many of whom had traveled from Baghdad, 90 miles to the north -- packed the mosque and its courtyard while chanting ''Moqtada is a bridge to heaven!"

Khawla Hassan, 30, praised the radical cleric for the deal, describing it as a ''victory for the master."

''This was a peace agreement," she said. ''We all love peace."

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