BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Gunmen killed a Shiite tribal sheik linked to British forces in a drive-by shooting Friday in the southern city of Basra, while two Marines and a soldier were reported killed in fighting elsewhere in Iraq.
One Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 and one Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7 died Thursday after fighting in Anbar province, an insurgent stronghold, the military said. In Ninevah province to the northwest, a soldier assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, was killed Tuesday, the military said.
The deaths raise to 54 the number of American troops who have died in December, which is on track to become one of the deadliest months of the war. At least 2,942 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Iraqi police said two car bombs being driven by suicide attackers exploded at U.S. checkpoints in the militant base of the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi and American soldiers opened fire to foil one of the attacks, an Iraqi police lieutenant said on condition of anonymity because he was concerned for his safety. He said four Iraqi civilians were killed.
The U.S. military said it had no reports of suicide car bombings in Ramadi.
A senior official from the Iraqi Red Crescent, meanwhile, claimed that harassment from U.S. forces is a greater threat to his group's work than insurgent attacks.
``The main problem we are facing is the American forces more than the other forces,'' Dr. Jamal al-Karbouli, vice president of the Iraqi Red Crescent, said in Geneva.
Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the U.S.-led coalition forces ``strive to ensure they are respectful when they conduct interaction with the local population.''
The slain cleric, Muhsin al-Kanan, was a member of the provisional council in Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, and had good relations with British forces in the area, police said.
Britain has about 7,200 troops in southern Iraq, mostly in and around Basra, and Shiite factions and militias have been fighting for control of the area as they begin to withdraw from some of the provinces in the region. Attacks by insurgents from Iraq's Sunni Arab minority also have occurred in the area.
In a separate drive-by shooting, in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on a civilian near a bus station, killing him, police said.
Little violence was reported in Baghdad on Friday, the traditional Muslim day of prayer during which a weekly four-hour vehicle ban is imposed, after a week in which the capital was struck by several deadly car bombs and a mass kidnapping in a major commercial district.
Gunmen in military uniforms drove into a commercial district in the capital and seized dozens of shopkeepers and bystanders from the streets on Thursday. Police said at least 25 of the hostages had been released but would not comment on how many remained in custody.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said only three of those who had been released had come to the ministry to provide information about the case. ``We are questioning them while the others went home directly,'' he said.
Another policeman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said three witnesses said they had been handcuffed and blindfolded before they were released late Thursday in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood.
A Shiite cleric, meanwhile, called for U.S. forces to leave the country and warned the ``bloodshed will continue'' if Iraq's politicians continue fighting each other.
The comments by Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi during his Friday sermon in the Shiite district of Sadr City, came on the eve of a national reconciliation conference aimed at rallying ethnic, religious and political groups around a common strategy for handling Iraq's problems.