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Al-Sadr army repels occupation attack
Occupation forces have clashed with fighters loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala as the Shia leader warned of martyrdom attacks against US-led troops.
One soldier in the 9000-strong force under Polish command in central Iraq was killed in the fighting, according to Aljazeera's correspondent in the city.
Explosions were heard over different parts of the city as the rival forces traded fire for half an hour.
Witnesses and hospital staff said five civilians - four Iraqis and one Iranian - and five members of al-Sadr's Mahdi army were wounded in the clashes.
An AFP correspondent who witnessed the gun battle saw four wounded civilians and the charred remains of a four-wheel-drive vehicle of the occupation troops.
After the firing which erupted before Friday's prayers, the Mahdi army fighters said they had beaten back an assault by occupation forces.
The occupation in a statement said at about 12:10 (0810 GMT), a convoy was attacked near the city hall. "The patrol returned fire," it said.
The statement said reinforcements from the division's 1st Brigade Combat Team were sent to secure the city hall and surrounding areas. The 1st BCT is made up of Polish, Bulgarian, Lithuanian and Latvian troops.
City hall is located near the office of an al-Sadr religious foundation and the al-Mukhayyam mosque controlled by his loyalists.
US-led occupation forces have threatened to retake Karbala, located 110 km south of Baghdad, from al-Sadr loyalists who seized the city early this month.
An uneasy standoff had been in effect over the past few days, with Iraqi police hunkered down around official buildings and patrolling only near holy sites while al-Sadr's Mahdi militia was deployed near the cleric's local headquarters.
Meanwhile, Al-Sadr said there would be martyrdom attacks if the occupation troops penetrated any of the Shia holy cities.
"If we are forced to defend our cities, we will resort to martyrdom operations and we will be human time bombs which would explode in their faces," he said in his weekly sermon at Kufa, on the outskirts of the holy city of Najaf, 160 km south of Baghdad on Friday.
"We have enough weapons and a large number of followers, and there are many believers who are ready to conduct martyrdom operations," he said.
"Until now we had refused to do this," he said, adding: "But if we are forced to do it, we will."
Al-Sadr also urged Najaf residents to create committees to run their city. "It is up to you to build your Islamic capital," he said.
"We should be united for one ultimate goal, to liberate our country and remove the filth from Iraq."
Occupation forces are attempting to capture al-Sadr in connection with the assassination of a rival Shia cleric.
By Abdulamir Hannon - KARBALA, Iraq
The US-led coalition in Iraq was Friday threatened with suicide attacks as leading Shiite and Sunni clerics warned troops against assaulting cities where armed rebels are holding out.
The radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr said his supporters would "resort to suicide operations" if soldiers attempted to penetrate Iraq's holy cities.
"If we are forced to defend our cities, we will resort to suicide operations and we will be human time-bombs which would explode in their faces," he said at Friday prayers in Kufa, just outside the holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Baghdad, where he has been holed up since US troops surrounded the city.
"We have enough weapons and a large number of followers, and there are many believers who are ready to conduct suicide operations," he said.
"Until now we had refused to do this," he said. "But if we are forced to do it, we will."
As he spoke at least 10 people were injured when fighters loyal to Sadr battled with Eastern European troops of the coalition in the holy Shiite city of Karbala, according to hospital officials and witnesses.
A Sunni leader, Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Ghafur Samarrai, also warned the coalition it faced an uprising throughout Iraq if US forces attacked the flashpoint city of Fallujah.
Coalition military leaders warned time was running out for insurgents in the Sunni city, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad, to hand over their heavy weapons as part of a ceasefire deal after more than two weeks of fighting.
The clashes in Karbala lasted about 30 minutes, and left an Iranian pilgrim, four civilians and five militiamen injured and destroyed an all-terrain vehicle of the coalition troops, witnesses and hospital staff said.
A Bulgarian soldier died Friday after being shot in an ambush in the Iraqi holy Shiite city of Karbala, a Bulgarian correspondent reported from the town.
The report from the correspondent for the Bulgarian agency Focus was confirmed in Sofia by the chairman of the parliament's foreign policy commission, Venko Alexandrov.
The ambush Friday came when a Bulgarian patrol returning to its base was attacked by mortar and automatic arms fire and returned fire, the defense ministry said in a statement.
"At about 12:10 (0810 GMT), the coalition forces convoy was attacked near the city hall," the coalition's Multinational Division said in a statement. "The patrol returned fire."
It said reinforcements from the division's 1st Brigade Combat Team were sent to secure city hall and surrounding areas. The 1st BCT is made up of Polish, Bulgarian, Lithuanian and Latvian troops.
City hall is located near the office of a Sadr religious foundation and the al-Mokhayam mosque controled by Sadr loyalists.
Karbala, 110 kilometers (66 miles) south of Baghdad, is one of the cities that US troops have threatened to retake after a surge of violence in April by sections of both the Sunni and the Shiite communities killed scores of soldiers and hundreds of Iraqis.
Sadr loyalists seized Karbala by force early this month and coalition planes this week dropped leaflets on the city, urging militiamen to hand over their weapons and withdraw from public buildings.
An uneasy standoff had been in effect over the past few days, with Iraqi police hunkered down around official buildings and patrolling only near holy sites while Sadr militiamen were deployed near the cleric's local headquarters.
US forces have so far stopped short of taking the battle to Najaf and Karbala, the country's two holiest cities, following warnings to stay out by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shiite majority in Iraq.
US forces want to arrest Sadr, who has been linked to the murder of a rival cleric a year ago and are demanding the dismantling of the Mehdi Army.
Tensions remained high in Fallujah but Iraqi authorities Friday sharply downgraded the death toll from this month's fighting there that followed the slaying of four US contractors on March 31, two of whom were mutilated by angry mobs.
"Between April 5 until Thursday (April 22) at 9 a.m. (0500 GMT) according to official health ministry figures, 271 people were killed and 793 wounded," Iraq's interim health minister Khodayir Abbas told AFP, adding that the casualties were "Iraqi martyrs."
During the same period, 305 Iraqis were killed and 1,261 wounded in clashes between Shiite Muslims and coalition troops in Baghdad, central and southern Iraq, he said.
Iraqi mediators and hospital officials had previously said that some 600 to 700 people had died during the bloodiest fighting since the US-led invasion in March last year. Scores of US troops were also killed in the fighting and sporadic fierce clashes.
The death toll from Wednesday's coordinated series of five suicide bombings in and around the British-controlled southern city of Basra rose to 74 with more than 160 wounded Friday. The coalition blamed Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda extremist network for the attacks.
The US overseer in the country, Paul Bremer, is set to deliver a televised address to the nation Friday and outline reforms to a system keeping former members of the now disbanded ruling Baath party out of top government jobs.