Baghdad, Iraq Gunmen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ambushed an Iraqi patrol in an eastern Baghdad slum Sunday, and U.S. forces joined the 90-minute battle, killing as many as eight attackers in the first significant violence in the neighborhood in nearly a year.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, armed men pulled off a daring armored car robbery, killing two guards and escaping with $850,000, and a suicide car bomber slammed into a convoy carrying Interior Ministry commandos, killing seven of them and two civilians.
South of the capital, two separate bicycle bombings in town markets killed at least seven people and wounded dozens.
The ominous resurgence of violence in the poor Sadr City region began about 1:30 a.m. when an Iraqi patrol searching for three insurgents came under attack. U.S. forces in the neighborhood joined the battle and reported killing between five and eight of the attackers. Iraqi police said eight were killed.
"I am concerned about the events early this morning, but I do not believe this action reflects a pattern of change leading to more violence," said Col. Joseph DiSalvo, commander of U.S. forces in east Baghdad.
Constitution at risk
Al-Sadr's militia, the al-Mahdi Army, was a repeated problem for American forces until a truce was negotiated about a year ago that allowed some U.S. troops to pull out of Sadr City to join the November assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of the capital.
Before the truce, al-Sadr's forces had led unsuccessful but bloody uprisings against coalition forces in Kut and the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, all south of Baghdad.
With a referendum on Iraq's new constitution less than three weeks away, violence in the poor Shiite district could deepen opposition among al-Sadr's supporters who are bucking mainstream Shiite support for the constitution.
Shiite unity has been seen as critical for passage of the basic law, which minority Sunni Muslims by and large oppose.
A statement read to reporters by an official with al-Sadr's office, accused U.S. forces of trying to draw them into a battle "aimed at destroying Iraqi towns, particularly those in pro-Sadr areas and .... to prevent al-Sadr followers from voting" in the referendum.
The two bicycle bombs hit marketplaces in Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, where one person was killed and 48 wounded. The second, more deadly bomb went off in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad. It killed at least six and wounded 17, including the city police chief, according to police Capt. Muthanna Khalid Ali.
Police also reported finding at least seven bodies in four separate locations in Baghdad - six men who had been bound and shot, including one identified as a policeman, and a woman in her 20s who appeared to have been strangled and tortured.
Authorities said assailants kidnapped a Baghdad school principal on his way to work, and a mortar shell targeting a western Baghdad Iraqi army checkpoint wounded four Iraqi soldiers. In Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, three mortar shells landed in a residential district. One shell hit a house, killing seven members of one family, including children, according to police Capt. Laith Muhammed.
Trouble in south
In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair gave no ground in the continuing dispute with Iraqi officials in the southern oil hub of Basra, saying Sunday an arrest warrant against two British soldiers had no legal standing.
"We will do whatever is necessary to protect our troops in any situation," Blair told the BBC.
Basra authorities issued the warrants after the two soldiers, working undercover, were arrested Sept. 19, prompting rioting when British armor surrounded the prison where the soldiers were detained. That night the armored vehicles crashed through the prison wall and freed the men. British authorities said they were in the hands of militiamen loyal to al-Sadr, not the police.
In the meantime, the Basra governor has demanded Britain apologize for the incident, in which five Iraqis reportedly died. Gov. Mohammed al-Waili also said Britain must pay compensation to victims, and he ordered government officials to end cooperation with the British.
Blair, in rejecting the warrants, said he had been surprised by the strength of the insurgency that has been tearing at Iraq since the late summer of 2003.
"No, I didn't expect quite the same sort of ferocity from every single element in the Middle East that came in and is doing their best to disrupt the political process. But I have absolutely no doubt as to what we should do. We should stick with it," he said.
The Basra mayhem and subsequent bad blood between the British and residents in the predominantly Shiite region appeared to have its origins earlier this month when British forces arrested local al-Mahdi Army boss Sheikh Ahmed Fartosi.
The al-Mahdi Army and another Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade, are believed to have heavily infiltrated the police force in the south, taking orders from religious leaders rather than government officials.
The Badr Brigade is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, whose powerful leader has just issued a call for Shiites to support the constitution. The split between the followers of al-Sadr and SCIRI leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim could produce a division under which the more radical al-Sadr followers join Iraq's Sunni majority in a voting bloc to reject the new charter.
Adoption of the new constitution is viewed in Washington as a vital step in transforming Iraq into a democratic bastion in the Middle East. Rejection of the charter would be a major setback for the U.S. strategy in Iraq.