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Bloodletting continues in Iraq’s south

Times Staff Writer

A militia chief’s brother, kidnapped last week in an apparent act of vengeance that sparked a two-day battle over control of a southern Iraqi city, was found dead Monday amid signs of simmering unrest between rival Shiite Muslim groups that is undermining security in the relatively stable south.

At least 50 other Iraqis were killed or found dead around the country during the day as part of relentless political violence that has marked the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is just ending.

Mounting U.S. and Iraqi casualties have spurred calls for changes to America’s political and military policy in Iraq. In Washington, the White House on Monday sought to play down suggestions that the U.S. was pressuring the Iraqi government to set benchmarks and deadlines for gaining political and military control.

Officials said the Bush administration was flexible and seeking to adjust course as needed. There were “practical conversations going on” with Iraqi leaders, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said. “But is the United States saying, ‘Here’s your drop-dead date?’ Of course not.”

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Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters that U.S. officials wanted Iraqis to take over more than the two provinces they now control. However, Rumsfeld said the broad discussions did not include specific dates.

“I think people have to be realistic,” he said. “Our hope is that we can assist them, the coalition can assist them in assuming responsibility for their country, as I said the other day, sooner rather than later.”

In London, Iraq’s deputy prime minister predicted in a BBC interview that “seven or eight” of the country’s 18 provinces would be under Iraqi control by the end of the year.

“There is too much of a pessimistic tone to this debate -- even, I would say, in certain circles, a defeatist tone,” Barham Salih said. “At the end of the day, this is about the Iraqi leadership, this is about Iraqis assuming responsibility for their country.”

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Amarah, the southern city racked by weekend fighting, is among the areas all but handed over to Iraqi forces. Authorities braced for more violence with the discovery of Hussein Bahadeli’s bullet-riddled body, which bore signs of torture and was found in a rural field near the city, said an official at the forensics department of Amarah’s main hospital.

Bahadeli was kidnapped Thursday, presumably to avenge the slaying of the provincial director of intelligence a day earlier. Hundreds of heavily armed black-clad militiamen loyal to Bahadeli’s brother, Al Mahdi militia leader Sheik Fadhel Bahadeli, swarmed the city, attacking police stations and fighting gun battles on Thursday and Friday that left as many as 25 dead.

In possible retaliation, unidentified gunmen early Friday morning shot and killed a police officer as he left home in downtown Amarah and abducted another whose body was later found with several gunshot wounds.

Witnesses described the atmosphere in the city as tense, but Lt. Col. Sharhan Hassan, spokesman for Iraqi forces there, denied reports that a curfew had been imposed or that fighting continued Monday.

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“The army is deployed in the city to protect the people if anything might happen, and so far there are no armed conflicts in the city,” he said.

Al Mahdi army militiamen, loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, are fighting militiamen loyal to other Shiite clerics and factions for control of southern Iraq. Though Maysan province’s governor is a Sadr loyalist, forces loyal to cleric Abdelaziz Hakim dominate the security apparatus. Hakim leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite rival to Sadr’s organization.

British forces vacated Amarah this summer, handing over de facto control to Iraqi forces.

Decades-old tensions between followers of the Hakim and Sadr clerical families have at times turned bloody, introducing another volatile dynamic in a country already reeling from sectarian and insurgent violence.

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Fighting continued around Baghdad on Monday. Authorities collected the bodies of at least 34 people believed to have been victims of death squads. All were those of men between 25 and 45 years old, bound and blindfolded, bearing signs of torture and several gunshot wounds, said Iraqi police Lt. Ahmad Qassim.

Two remote-controlled car bombs killed at least six Iraqis and injured 27 in northern and downtown Baghdad. At least one Iraqi soldier was killed during a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid on a village south of Baghdad where Sunnis have been threatening Shiites.

A 12-year-old boy was killed Monday in the northern city of Mosul in the crossfire of a U.S.-led operation to capture a suspected insurgent, the American military said. A U.S. airstrike killed another suspected insurgent allegedly transporting weapons in a car.

U.S. forces killed five suspected insurgents south of the central Iraqi town of Balad on Monday. After shooting dead one insurgent, U.S. forces surrounded a house and tried to lure the other suspects out before using force.

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“Coalition aircraft delivered precision munitions onto the building, resulting in its destruction and the death of the four occupants who refused to exit,” a press release said.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Julian E. Barnes in Washington and special correspondents in Amarah; Baghdad; and Hillah, Iraq, contributed to this report.

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