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Firefight in Baghdad

Violence in Najaf between al-Sadr followers, protesters turns deadly

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Insurgents in western Baghdad staged a sophisticated and well-coordinated strike against police checkpoints Wednesday, leaving 14 dead and dozens wounded, police said.

Meanwhile, in the southern city of Najaf, fighting between followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and demonstrators left five people dead and 10 wounded, a local health official said.

The afternoon attack in Baghdad's Sunni Arab neighborhood of Jamiaa was brazen -- far different from the drive-by shootings, roadside bombings and car bombings that have become commonplace in the capital.

Operating in broad daylight, 30 to 40 insurgents in civilian cars fired two rocket-propelled grenades at police patrolling a checkpoint, striking vehicles. Initially, police thought a car bomb had gone off.

Insurgents armed with RPGs, hand grenades, AK-47s and machine guns also attacked police at other checkpoints.

Police responded, and the clashes lasted for about 90 minutes. Four police officers and nine civilians were killed. Among the 59 wounded were 12 police.

Police said they killed at least one insurgent and wounded two others, who were arrested. (Watch video of battle aftermath)

One of the injured insurgents was from nearby Amriya, where the insurgency has support, and the other was from Haifa Street, a stretch of Baghdad where anti-U.S. sentiment is popular.

After the fighting, security forces went house to house looking for insurgents.

Around the time of the firefight, police in Baghdad reported a nearby suicide car bomb. It targeted a convoy carrying the Samarra police chief, killing two police officers and wounding two other officers.

It is not known whether the bombing was related to the firefight.

The U.S. military said it responded to three suicide car bombings in central Baghdad at 3:15 p.m. that caused Iraqi deaths and injuries. It didn't provide specific numbers, locations or many details.

Earlier in western Baghdad, Iraq's deputy minister of justice, Awshoo Ibrahim, escaped an assassination attempt, police said.

Gunmen opened fire on his convoy along a major highway in the Adil neighborhood around 10 a.m. (2 a.m. ET).

Four of Ibrahim's bodyguards were killed in the attack and five others were wounded. Two vehicles were also destroyed.

The violence in Najaf, a holy metropolis south of Baghdad, came after an al-Sadr office that had just reopened near the Imam Ali Mosque was ordered to close.

Al-Sadr offices had been closed since last year's fighting between his Mehdi army militia and U.S. forces, and he remains a controversial figure in the country. Since last year, conditions in Najaf have been relatively peaceful, however.

On Wednesday, Najaf's city council gave notices to close all offices in the Old City around the mosque to make the area bigger for visitors, a Ministry of Interior official said.

When al-Sadr's followers said they wouldn't comply, demonstrations and fighting ensued, the official said.

Sheikh Salah Obeidi, spokesman for al-Sadr, said protesters threw rocks at the office, stormed it and torched it. He said that one of the wounded was a sheikh at the al-Sadr office -- Saheb al-Ameri.

The incident has reverberated outside the Najaf city limits, spurring demonstrations by al-Sadr forces in Baghdad's Sadr City and Shaab areas -- both bastions of support for al-Sadr.

The official said police were cordoning off the Old City, as demonstrations continued into the night.

Meanwhile, the draft constitution remains a controversial document, the major bone of contention being federalism. Government leaders have imposed a deadline of Thursday midnight for talks to bridge gaps of agreement.

Hachim al-Hassani, transitional assembly speaker, said, "We have had talks yesterday and today, reaching out for satisfactory solutions for everybody. This will enable us to go to the referendum on October 15, and say 'Yes' to this constitution."

If the draft constitution wins approval in the referendum, there will be an election for a permanent government at the end of the year.

The United States and the interim Iraq government believe the delays could help bolster the insurgency, but many believe that alienating the Sunnis during the constitution process could inflict the same harm.

Wednesday President Bush called the constitution's creation "a landmark event," adding, "We admire their thoughtful deliberations." (Full story)

Other developments

  • The Pentagon announced Wednesday it will send 1,500 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division to Iraq next month as reinforcements during the fall election. It will be the third time U.S. troops levels will have increased during major political milestones in Iraq. Similar moves were made during the transfer to Iraqi sovereignty in June 2004 and during elections in January. The battalions are based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
  • A U.N. agency Wednesday said the marshlands in southern Iraq -- nearly ruined under the Saddam Hussein regime -- have been making a "phenomenal" recovery, with the wetlands bouncing back to nearly 40 percent of the area they covered in the 1970s. The region -- which had been regarded as "a key natural habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries" -- had been "damaged significantly since the 1970s, due to upstream dam construction and drainage operations" by the former regime, according to the U.N. Environmental Program. (Full story)
  • CNN's Aneesh Raman and Kianne Sadeq contributed to this report.

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