Bombing in Iraq targets Shiite cleric

A roadside bomb exploded Thursday alongside the convoy of a prominent Shiite cleric whose high-level political ties have made him the target of past assassination attempts. The imam was not injured, but several bodyguards were wounded.The attack against Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, who is also a prominent member of Iraq’s parliament, came on one of Baghdad’s quietest days in months – with one reported car bombing and one fatality.

U.S. and Iraqi forces also neared agreement to expand the Baghdad security sweep into the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. Such a move would test the willingness of the powerful Mahdi Army militia to grant its American foes access to all parts of Baghdad under its control.

The relative lull in violence offered authorities a rare breather after periods of almost hour-by-hour bombings and mortar strikes by suspected Sunni insurgents.

But the calm was broken after nightfall. The rumbling of artillery fire was heard throughout Baghdad.

In recent days, U.S. gunners have pummeled areas of south Baghdad used as suspected staging ground for car bombings and other attacks.

There was no immediate word from the military on the latest apparent barrage. Residents said the shelling was concentrated on the mostly Sunni area of Dora.

The barrage highlighted the enormous security challenges of a planned international conference on ways to rebuild and stabilize war-weary Iraq. The gathering hopes to bring together a broad range of Western and Islamic nations, including the United States and pivotal Iraq neighbors Syria and Iran.

Al-Sagheer, an ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, told The Associated Press his convoy was attacked in a Sunni area of southwest Baghdad while en route from the airport.

“They targeted me again,” he said, but declined to point the finger at any specific group. He said several bodyguards were wounded.

Al-Sagheer has had close calls in the past – which he said were linked to his denunciations of Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadists such as al-Qaida in Iraq.

In June 2006, a shoe bomber killed 10 people during prayers in his mosque in northern Baghdad. Two months earlier, suicide attackers killed at least 85 people as they left the mosque.

A U.S.-led security operation launched Feb. 14 seeks to reclaim Baghdad’s lawless streets.

So far, the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City has proven to be one of the most complex pieces of the puzzle.

The Mahdi Army militia, led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, pulled backed under intense government pressure to allow the security plan to proceed. But the U.S. and Iraqi forces have cautiously avoided storming into Sadr City, fearing al-Sadr could suddenly withdraw his tacit cooperation.

A meeting between Sadr City political leaders and a joint U.S.-Iraqi military delegation studied plans to establish an “operational base” in the district, said Rahim al-Daraji, one of Sadr City’s two mayors.

“We discussed ways to coordinate … and define the movements of these troops,” he said. However, he said continued pinpoint U.S. raids in Sadr City were violations of the possible agreement.

Violence struck outside of the capital Thursday.

In the Sunni militant stronghold of Fallujah, a bomb-rigged car exploded near a convoy of cars heading to a police officer’s wedding. At least five people were killed and 10 wounded, said police Lt. Wessam Mohammad. The bride and groom were not harmed.

The attack appeared linked to insurgents, who have targeted police officers, politicians and others seen as symbols of the U.S.-backed government.

The U.S. command said Thursday that two U.S. Marines were killed the day before in fighting in western Anbar province, which includes Fallujah.

Four Iraqi civilians were killed and 10 others were wounded in a mortar attack Thursday in Iskandariyah, a mostly Shiite city 30 miles south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. A building was also damaged in the attack.

In northern Iraq, meanwhile, a U.S. Army helicopter made a “hard landing,” but the military said the problem was mechanical and not the result of hostile fire. The two-member crew suffered injuries, the military said.

The OH-58 Kiowa, which is mostly used in surveillance and some light combat missions, went down in an area around Kirkuk, about 180 miles north of Baghdad.

The two pilots were taken to an American military hospital in Kirkuk, the military said. There was no word on their injuries.

Last week, ground fire forced a Black Hawk helicopter to make an emergency landing north of Baghdad, the military said. At least eight other U.S. helicopters have crashed or been brought down by hostile fire in Iraq this year.

Northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said American and Iraqi troops killed 10 militants and seized six weapons stashes in Diyala province. The raids took place over the past three days, the military said Thursday.

Diyala is a mixed Sunni-Shiite area that has seen increased violence recently as insurgents stream out of Baghdad during the security crackdown.

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