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U.S. Troops Capture Key Lieutenant of Radical Cleric

U.S. Troops Capture Key Lieutenant of Radical Cleric

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. troops captured a key lieutenant of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr during overnight clashes in Najaf that killed 24 people and wounded nearly 50, hospital and militia officials said.

Riyadh al-Nouri, al-Sadr's brother-in-law, offered no resistance when American troops raided his home during a series of clashes in this Shiite holy city, according to Azhar al-Kinani, a staffer in al-Sadr's office in Najaf.

The capture of al-Nouri would be a major blow to al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army, which has been battling coalition forces since early April. Al-Sadr launched his uprising in response to a crackdown by coalition authorities who announced an arrest warrant against him in the April 2003 assassination of a moderate cleric in Najaf.

In Baghdad, diplomatic sources confirmed reports published Wednesday that Dr. Hussain al-Shahristani, a science adviser to the Iraqi government who spent years in Abu Ghraib prison, was among several people under consideration for the job of prime minister of an interim government to take power June 30. The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, emphasized that no decision had been made and other candidates were under consideration.

Before the Iraq war, al-Shahristani was among the Iraqi exiles who had insisted that Saddam maintained weapons of mass destruction. In February 2003, he told CBS' "60 Minutes" that such weapons may have been hidden in tunnels for a Baghdad subway that never opened.

Despite his concerns about mass destruction weapons, al-Shahristani said in London in 2002 that he was "extremely concerned of the consequences" of an invasion of Iraq on the people Iraqi people.

Also Wednesday, masked gunmen opened fire on a convoy taking Russian technicians to work at a Baghdad power station, killing two and wounding at least five, Iraqi and Russian officials said. It was only the latest attack on employees with the Interenergoservis company.

In Moscow, the executive director of the company, Alexander Rybinsky, said Wednesday the firm would evacuate all its staff from Iraq. The attacks on the Russians could be an attempt to undermine international efforts to rebuild the country, since Russian expertise has played an important role in reviving Iraq's electricity industry and other infrastructure.

A roadside bomb exploded Wednesday on Baghdad's Tahreer Square near a main bridge across the Tigris river, damaging a U.S. Army vehicle. There was no word on casualties.

In Baqouba, about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, five people were killed and seven others injured when a roadside bomb exploded near a convoy including the police chief of Baladrooz. The police chief, Ali Hussein, escaped injury.

Elsewhere, the Polish command said a coalition base outside of Karbala, 50 miles north of Najaf, came under mortar fire late Tuesday. Demolition teams also defused three roadside bombs in the area, a spokesman for the Polish-led multinational force said Wednesday.

The mortar rounds were fired at Camp Kilo, where mostly Bulgarian troops are based, Maj. Slawomir Walenczykowski said. The attack resulted in no injuries or damage.

Fighting escalated in Shiite areas south of Baghdad in early April after al-Sadr launched an uprising against the U.S.-run occupation. Al-Sadr is sought in the April 2003 assassination of a moderate cleric in Najaf.

Al-Sadr's fighters have cleared out of Karbala following weeks of heavy clashes with U.S. and coalition forces. But clashes persist in Najaf and its twin city, Kufa.

During the clashes overnight, militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and mortars during three hours of skirmishes that ended about dawn, residents said. Some exchanges of fire were also reported around the city's Revolution of 1920 Square.

Fighting around some of the holiest cities of Shia Islam has angered many Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere and has led to calls for both the Americans and the militiamen to pull back from the shrines.

On Tuesday, the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf received slight damage. Both U.S. and Shiite forces blamed the other for the damage.

In the ambush on the Russian workers, police said the group was traveling in a bus when they were attacked about a few hundred yards from the Dora power station in southwestern Baghdad. One Iraqi was also killed, police said.

The wounded were taken to Yarmouk Hospital, where Dr. Adham Saadoun said some were in serious condition.

It was the second fatal attack against employees of Interenergoservis this month. On May 10, a group of Russian workers was seized after their vehicle came under attack in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad. A third worker was killed in the attack.

Three Russian and five Ukrainian employees of Interenergoservis were abducted in Iraq last month, but were released unharmed the next day.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had repeatedly warned Russians of the dangers of living in Iraq, where violence is on the rise ahead of the return of sovereignty June 30.

The ministry blamed the deteriorating situation on the failure of the U.S.-run occupation authority "to guarantee the necessary security."

Attacks on infrastructure targets have stepped up in recent weeks. Bombings along key oil pipelines in northern and southern Iraq have resulted in temporary cutbacks in the export of petroleum -- the key to reviving Iraq's economy.

U.S. troops opened fire on a car in downtown Kirkuk, killing a man and injuring his wife, an Iraqi police official said Wednesday. The Tuesday night shooting broke out five minutes after the nighttime curfew went into effect at 11 p.m., said Police Gen. Sherko Shakir. The couple's baby was also in the Fiat, but was not hurt, he said.

There was no comment from U.S. officials.

Also Wednesday, the head of Iraq's Governing Council said President Bush's idea of demolishing the notorious Abu Ghraib prison was "a waste of resources."

"We must not be sentimental," Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer told reporters. "Torture has taken place in every vault in Iraq. As the Governing Council, we do not agree with demolishing it."

He said the matter will be left for the transitional government that takes office Jan. 30.

In a televised speech on Monday, Bush said Abu Ghraib prison, notorious for torture under Saddam Hussein and scene of prisoner abuse by U.S. troops, will be destroyed "as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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