BAGHDAD -- A nighttime clash that killed two US soldiers and at least one Iraqi in a teeming Shi'ite Muslim slum raised tensions yesterday between the American occupation force and the country's religious majority.
The Americans said their troops were lured into an ambush, but the Shi'ites maintained that US soldiers opened fire first when they approached radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's headquarters in the Sadr City slum.
The clash late Thursday, which wounded at least seven Iraqis and two US soldiers, drew an angry reaction from Iraq's Shi'ites. That could mean trouble for coalition forces, because the Shi'ite population in Iraq has shown patience with the American occupation so far, evidently feeling it had much to win from cooperating.
A clash with Shi'ites could open a second front for troops already facing regular attacks in the Sunni heartland of central Iraq, from where Saddam Hussein drew his greatest support. Still, Sadr has very little support among the mainstream Shi'ite clerical leadership.
The bloodshed occurred just 12 hours after a mysterious car bombing killed 10 people at a nearby police station in Sadr City, where Sadr has taken a stand against the US military occupation and deployed his own armed force.
Sheik Abdel-Hadi al-Daraji, an aide to Sadr, claimed the Americans were approaching the cleric's headquarters and opened fire first in the Thursday night attack.
He accused the Americans of trying to drive a wedge between Shi'ites and Sunnis, and claimed the US-led coalition was responsible for "manufacturing crises and trying to create havoc." But he stopped short of calling on Shi'ites to take up arms against the Americans.
The US military said a First Armored Division squad riding in three Humvees was ambushed at about 8 p.m. Thursday while on routine patrol in the area. Lieutenant Colonel George Krivo, a US Army spokesman, had no comment about the claim that the US soldiers had approached Sadr's headquarters.
"A group of people, civilians, met with US forces and said, `Please come in, we need to show you something important,' " Krivo said.
When the soldiers left their vehicles and followed the Iraqis, they came under small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire, he said. Homemade bombs were also detonated.
An Army quick reaction force helped extricate the patrol, Krivo said. He would not go into detail about what happened next, but suggested the encounter lasted two hours and that he "would not characterize [it] as a raid."
Krivo said the US military would not change its policy of patrolling Sadr City.
Security was tight during prayers yesterday, with residents loyal to Sadr blocking streets leading to the main mosque. Guards were stationed on rooftops and around the 10,000 faithful who attended the sermon and prayers.
Afterward, there was a funeral procession for two people said to have been killed in Thursday's clash.
"America claims to be the pioneer of freedom and democracy, but it resembles, or indeed is, a terror organization," Daraji, the Sadr aide, told the congregation. "The Americans may have forgotten that the real power rests with God and not with the wretched America."
Staff at al-Chawader Hospital in Sadr City said one Iraqi was killed in the clash and at least seven were injured.
"No to America! Yes to martyrdom!" the crowd chanted as the two coffins arrived.
"Let me congratulate the martyrs and pray we are all granted that same fate," Daraji said.
Krivo said the Americans are in an "ongoing dialogue with Shi'ite officials" about the tensions in Sadr City. He didn't elaborate.
Sadr lives in the southern city of Najaf, but Sadr City, home to thousands of young, unemployed Shi'ites, is his main power base. The area was known as Saddam City until Hussein's ouster, when it was renamed for Sadr's father, a cleric killed in 1999 by suspected security agents.
"We want peace, but the Americans came last night thinking this is Fallujah," said Mahdi Abdel-Zahra, 32, referring to a city west of Baghdad where frequent clashes between Iraqis and Americans have taken place. "They are wrong. We've never hurt the Americans in Sadr City."
In Fallujah, an unidentified assailant lobbed a grenade on a passing US military convoy yesterday, witnesses said. The Americans responded by opening fire. Three pedestrians were hurt, but it wasn't clear whether their wounds were caused by the grenade or the gunfire. No US troops were wounded.