BAGHDAD, Iraq – About 2,000 Shiite Muslims (search) marched through Baghdad streets Wednesday to demand the release of a cleric detained by coalition forces.
Moayed al-Khazraji (search) was arrested Monday as he lead a 12-man delegation to negotiate with the Americans in the municipal council building. A large crowd of his supporters confronted American troops late Tuesday outside his mosque, but the confrontation ended peacefully after U.S. troops withdrew.
U.S. officials held talks with a group of clerics at the mosque Wednesday but failed to resolve the standoff. Following the talks, protesters began marching toward the center of the city, chanting Islamic slogans, as U.S. helicopters hovered overhead.
Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division (search), said al-Khazraji was being held "on charges of criminal and anti-coalition activities" but would not elaborate. Shiites at the mosque said he had been wrongly accused of keeping weapons in the mosque.
Al-Khazraji is said to be close to Muqtada al-Sadr, a young radical Shiite cleric who is strongly critical of the U.S. military occupation. However, al-Sadr's influence within Iraq's Shiite majority is believed to be less than that of older clerics who have spoken out against violence and have been generally more cooperative with American authorities.
Still, a violent confrontation with Shiites, who form about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, could have serious repercussions for the U.S.-led occupation. Most of the attacks against U.S. troops are believed carried out by Sunni Muslims (search), who formed the base of support for Saddam Hussein's regime.
One soldier attached to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was killed and another wounded in a bombing about 9:50 p.m. Monday just west of Baghdad. About an hour later, another roadside bombing killed two soldiers attached to the 82nd Airborne Division and their Iraqi translator. Two other soldiers were wounded in the bombing in al-Haswah, 25 miles south of the capital.
The three soldiers' deaths, the first reported since Friday, brought to 91 the number of American soldiers killed in hostile action since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1. A total of 320 U.S. service members have died in Iraq since the United States and Britain launched military operations against Saddam Hussein's government March 20.
Despite the ongoing attacks, U.S. officials insist the situation in Iraq is improving six months after Saddam's regime collapsed in the U.S.-led invasion.
"The situation is certainly not getting worse, that is nonsense," the chief U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer said Tuesday in Hillah, where he was participating in a women's conference. "When I arrived in Baghdad in May, it was a city on fire, there was no electricity, the schools, hospitals, universities were all closed. "All of these things have gotten better, day by day."