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3 U.S. Soldiers Killed in Iraq

Times Staff Writers

In a surge of unrest around Baghdad, three U.S. soldiers were killed by roadside bombs, an explosion rocked the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and thousands of angry Shiite Muslims protested what they said was the U.S. detention of a prominent mosque preacher.

The soldiers were killed in two separate attacks late Monday. Military officials were investigating, but said there was no indication the attacks were related.

No one was injured in the ministry blast, but the explosion rekindled fears that terrorists and insurgents are broadening their targets to include employees and facilities of the U.S.-installed interim Iraqi government.

In the Bayaa neighborhood of southwest Baghdad, as many as 3,000 Shiite Muslims rallied to demand the release of firebrand Shiite cleric Muayad Karzraji, who fellow sheiks said had been detained, handcuffed and taken away a day earlier by U.S. troops.

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A spokesman for the American military said it was checking on the arrest allegations.

The soldiers’ deaths bring to 323 the total number of U.S. troops killed since the United States and Britain entered Iraq in late March.

One soldier with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was killed and another was wounded west of Baghdad when a roadside bomb exploded Monday night. The wounded man was evacuated to a nearby military hospital.

About an hour later, two soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter with the 82nd Airborne Division died in a similar attack in Haswah, south of Baghdad. Two other soldiers were wounded.

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Names of the victims were withheld pending notification of family.

The ministry blast occurred Tuesday morning as scores of former Iraqi intelligence officers and demanded back pay nearby at the former Republican Palace, now home of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

A coalition spokesman said one of the protesters either threw a grenade into the ministry complex or fired a rocket-propelled grenade. Ministry guards said it landed in a garden near the Diplomatic Institute building, blowing out windows and sending workers fleeing. No casualties or major damage were reported.

After the blast, Iraqi guards and coalition forces exchanged gunfire with some protesters, a military spokeswoman said. No injuries were reported.

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U.S. military and Iraqi police immediately sealed off the area, preventing journalists and employees from entering the complex.

“I heard a huge explosion, but didn’t see any damage,” attorney Ayman Talib said.

At the Shiite protest in the south of the city, shouting demonstrators gathered in front of Karzraji’s blue-domed mosque on the dusty median of a highway that had been blocked off by U.S. troops in Humvees. Military helicopters drowned out the amplified Koranic chants played through scratchy loudspeakers.

Karzraji spent years in Saddam Hussein’s prisons, but among Shiite Muslims, he has emerged as a leader of the opposition to the U.S. military presence.

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The strongly anti-American tone of the protest was an ominous sign. In general, Iraq’s Shiite majority, which suffered religious repression under Hussein, has been less vociferous in its resistance to the U.S. occupation than Iraq’s Sunni minority.

“No, no to America!” the demonstrators shouted. “We are holy warriors, standing together against our enemy.”

Protesters said they would continue a sit-in at the site until Karzraji was released. Fellow clerics said the coalition had falsely accused him of inciting an uprising and had planted weapons in his mosque as a pretext for arresting him.

“Such lies will not be allowed to stand,” said a black-turbaned, black-robed Shiite Muslim cleric named Sheik Hazen Araji.

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Separately Tuesday, U.S. forces carried out the latest in what has been a string of raids aimed at hunting down those responsible for hit-and-run attacks on troops.

Seven people were arrested in the predawn raid in the town of Baqubah, north of Baghdad, including a man identified by the U.S. military as a former member of the Iraqi army’s special forces who allegedly has been a mastermind of bombings and other small-scale attacks on U.S. forces.

Maj. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry Division, said U.S. troops also seized bomb-making materials, weaponry including rocket-propelled grenades, foreign passports and a large sum of cash.

Such raids, most of which are carried out during the night, have been concentrated in towns north and west of Baghdad that make up the so-called Sunni Triangle, which for months has served as a prime staging ground for pro-Hussein insurgents.

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