Small Conflicts Flare in Iraq

U.S and Iraqi forces clashed with insurgents in northern Iraq on Saturday after launching an operation to destroy an alleged militant cell in the town of Tal Afar (search), the U.S. military said. At least eight people were killed and 50 wounded, hospital officials said.

A U.S. observation Kiowa (search) helicopter made an emergency landing amid the clashes, though the crew escaped with minor injuries, the military said in a statement. It was not immediately clear why the helicopter was forced to land.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, several mortar rounds landed near a checkpoint in the Iraqi capital Saturday close to the heavily fortified Green Zone (search), which houses Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy, a spokeswoman for coalition forces in Baghdad said.

It was not immediately known whether the shells caused any casualties.

Fawazi Mohammed, the head of the local hospital, said at least eight people died and another 50 were wounded during the clashes in Tal Afar. Many of the casualties were caused by a mortar shell explosion in a Tal Afar market, authorities said.

American soldiers killed two insurgents and captured another, while three Iraqi national guardsmen were hurt in the fighting, the military said.

A U.S. Stryker Brigade vehicle securing the helicopter's site later came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades, the military said. Troops fought back, killing two attackers.

In response to heavy enemy fire, soldiers on the ground were forced to call for air support and a warplane dropped a bomb near the town, the military said. It wasn't clear if there were any civilian casualties.

U.S. intelligence believes Tal Afar is being used as a haven by insurgents smuggling men and arms into Iraq from nearby Syria. It opted to launch the Saturday operation in a bid to flush them out, the military said.

In the Baghdad attack, the mortar rounds landed near the entrance to the Green Zone's convention center, where members of Iraq's 100-member transitional assembly, known as the Iraqi Council, gathered for a meeting.

Mortar rounds also exploded near the American-occupied Al-Rashid hotel, not far from the Green Zone, the spokeswoman said.

Also Saturday, saboteurs blew up an oil pipeline in southern Iraq, the latest attack targeting the country's crucial oil industry, police and oil officials said.

Firefighters struggled to put out the blaze caused by the explosion near Hartha, 19 miles north of Basra, and technicians were forced to shut down the pipeline, said police Maj. Col. Nouri Mohammed.

A South Oil Co. official said on condition of anonymity that technicians were forced to close the pipeline, which carries 15,000 barrels of crude a day from the Nahran Omar oil fields to an export storage tank called Zubayr-1 in the Faw peninsula.

The renewed violence came a day after a radical Shiite cleric whose forces battled the U.S. military to a stalemate in the holy city of Najaf rallied his followers with a sermon that ridiculed the United States and dispelled any notion he would seek a more conciliatory tone.

Rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's sermon, read out to 2,000 followers, came on the first Friday prayers since the end of a brutal three-week standoff with American troops in Najaf after a peace deal that allowed al-Sadr and his militants to walk away free -- and keep their guns.

The cleric's public statements and subsequent actions have often been at odds and nothing in Friday's sermon suggested he was planning to immediately resume hostilities. But its inflammatory tone did nothing to calm the tension between his fighters and the U.S. and Iraqi militaries.

"Many, but not all, think that the American army is invincible. But now it's appeared only truth is invincible," Sheik Jaber al-Khafaji, said in a statement read on al-Sadr's behalf. "America claims to control the world through globalization, but it couldn't do the same with the Mahdi Army."

Last week's accord that ended three weeks of fighting between U.S. forces and al-Sadr militiamen in Kufa's twin city of Najaf gave the interim government control of that city. It also disentangled U.S. forces from bitter street fighting.

Al-Sadr portrayed the American withdrawal from Najaf's devastated Old City as a sign of U.S. military weakness. "We should keep in mind the lessons of what happened in Najaf," the cleric's statement said.

Al-Sadr has repeatedly rejected government demands that he disarm his militia, despite promises of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid for the Sadr City slum of Baghdad. Calm had returned to the neighborhood since talks began several days ago.

In the sermon, Al-Sadr also denounced the kidnapping of two French journalists as "inhumane" and added his voice to calls across the Muslim world for their immediate release.

"You should know that such actions are not part of the Iraqi resistance.They tarnish the image of the Iraqi resistance," he said.

Hopes grew Thursday that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot would be released after France's foreign minister said he had proof the pair was alive and one of their employers said they had been handed over to another, more moderate group.

In Baghdad, a spokesman for an influential Sunni clerical organization said Friday the hostages' lives were no longer threatened and it was only a matter of time before their release. Chesnot and Malbrunot were last heard from on Aug. 19 as they set off for Najaf. Their Syrian driver also vanished.