At Least 24 Killed in Clashes in Iraq

Spanish-led troops and Iraqi police fought a three-hour gun battle with Shi'ite militiamen near Najaf that left 20 Iraqis and four Salvadoran soldiers dead Sunday, witnesses and medical officials said. As reported Reuter, the shooting began after protesting militiamen marched on a Spanish-run military base in Kufa, near Najaf, to denounce the arrest of an aide to a radical Shi'ite cleric and last week's closure by U.S. authorities of a militant Baghdad newspaper.

In a statement from Madrid, Spain's Defense Ministry said four soldiers from El Salvador, which has troops headquartered near Najaf, were killed in the fighting and nine wounded. The statement said Spanish troops also fought in the clashes.

The violence was likely to heighten the charged mood in Spain, where 191 people were killed last month by bombs blamed on Islamists. The newly-elected Socialists have vowed to withdraw the 1,300 Spanish troops from Iraq unless the U.N. takes charge by June 30.

Dr Falah al-Numhna, director general for health in Najaf, said 20 Iraqis were killed and at least 200 wounded in the firefight. He said he believed at least two Iraqi police were among the dead.

A spokesman for the Spanish military in Iraq told Spanish radio that the militiamen had opened fire first, attacking the base with gunfire from at least three positions. Coalition troops then returned fire, he said.

Witnesses said the demonstrators, many of them armed, threw stones at a military vehicle arriving at the base and shortly afterwards Spanish-led troops and Iraqi police at the base opened fire on the crowd from several directions.

Black-clad members of the Mehdi Army, a banned militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, returned fire at the heavily defended garrison. Fighting continued for around three hours. A Reuters correspondent said most of the dead he saw were wearing the black uniforms of the Mehdi Army.

In a statement issued by his office, Sadr called on his supporters to stop protests, saying they were futile. He said he would stage a sit-in in Kufa mosque and not give in until all their demands were met.

"Terrorize your enemy, God will reward you well for what pleases him. It is not possible to remain silent in front of their abuse," the statement said.

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