BAGHDAD -- Assailants ambushed a convoy of Britons on a northern Baghdad highway yesterday, killing an Iraqi security guard and a bystander, officials and witnesses said. US soldiers came under fire in a Shi'ite holy city as an agreement to halt fighting there appeared to be unraveling.
Two US soldiers were wounded in the clashes around the holy city, Najaf, the military said. Fighting erupted last night in Najaf's twin city, Kufa, and Shi'ite militiamen accused the Americans of firing near the main mosque, damaging its outer wall.
In a report from Kufa, CNN, which has a reporter embedded with First Armored Division troops there, said a ''major firefight" broke out late yesterday when soldiers tried to secure a police station. CNN quoted soldiers as saying it was the most intense fighting in the area in the past six weeks.
The attack in Baghdad's Shoala District occurred near dusk as three sport utility vehicles headed south toward the city center. Gunmen in an approaching vehicle opened fire, sending three of the four SUVs swerving off the road into barricades.
Crowds of Iraqi youths danced and cheered as rescuers dragged a bloodied body, wearing a flak vest, from the driver's seat of one vehicle. Other youths looted tires and set two vehicles on fire.
Two witnesses, Khalid Zaalan, 22, and Qays Hussein, 15, said that there was a shoot-out and that armed Western men jumped from the wrecked SUVs, commandeered a passing car at gunpoint, and escaped.
In London, the British Foreign Office said four Britons and a Iraqi jumped out of the vehicles, flagged down a passing Iraqi vehicle, and escaped. None of the Britons was hurt, but the Iraqi was wounded, the statement said.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman dismissed as rumor some witness reports that Western-looking men were abducted by the attackers.
A family of three was caught in the crossfire, according to Dr. Mazhar Abdullah of the nearby al-Sadr hospital. The husband was killed and his pregnant wife was seriously injured, the doctor said.
A preliminary report from the First Cavalry Division, responsible for security in Baghdad, said an Iraqi security guard was killed and one was wounded. The report did not mention any missing personnel or an escape.
On May 24, two British civilians working for a security company died when a roadside bomb blew up their armored car near the coalition headquarters in Baghdad.
Elsewhere, attackers in Samarra, 75 miles northeast of Baghdad, hurled three mortar shells into a market, killing three and injuring four, said Rashid Abdullah, a hospital official.
In Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, Shi'ite politicians sought to save a three-day-old agreement with radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to end the standoff with US soldiers in the holy city and restore government control there.
Sadr's fighters took over Najaf and Kufa in early April after occupation authorities cracked down on his militia, closing his newspaper, arresting a key lieutenant, and announcing an arrest warrant against him for the murder of a rival cleric.
Under a deal announced Thursday with Shi'ite leaders, Sadr agreed to remove his fighters from the streets and begin a dialogue with the clerical hierarchy over the future of his militia and the warrant against him. US troops agreed to halt offensive operations around Najaf and Kufa.
However, daily clashes since the agreement was announced have threatened to scuttle the deal.
The move threatens to delay the start of joint patrols, considered the key to shoring up security in the city as Sadr's militiamen return to their homes.
Yesterday, US troops and Sadr's fighters exchanged gunfire near Najaf's Valley of Peace cemetery, the largest burial ground in the Muslim world. Puffs of white smoke rose above the tombstones as Shi'ite gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at US tanks. One Iraqi was killed and four were injured, hospital officials said.
''The situation is very tough, and it looks like there's no solution," merchant Ammar al-Khafaji said. ''Inside the city, people are afraid."
On Saturday, the US-appointed governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, accused Sadr of failing to honor the truce.
Despite the clashes, Governing Council member Ahmed Chalabi, who traveled to Najaf to help shore up the agreement, said that there was a ''a momentum for peace" and that the fellow Shi'ite leaders were ''working to implement this so we can avoid any clashes."
Chalabi met with Sadr's aides last night and afterward said he had worked out a ''detailed plan for the implementation" of the truce agreement and would present them to US and Iraqi officials today.
''We ask both sides to stop hostilities," Chalabi said.
Following clashes around the cemetery, an explosion rocked the center of the city, sending black smoke over Revolution of 1920 Square. Gunfire immediately broke out, injuring two people fleeing the scene.
In Baghdad, a dispute between Iraq's Governing Council and US occupation authorities over the president of a new transitional government delayed formation of the new Cabinet to take power June 30.
A council member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the US administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, and special UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi were exerting ''massive pressure" on the US-appointed group to choose former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni Muslim councilman.
The current council chairman, civil engineer Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, was believed to be the choice of most of the 22 members.