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 were reported killed in fighting in a volatile province west of Baghdad.

One Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 and one Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7 died Thursday from wounds sustained due to enemy action in the Anbar province, an insurgent stronghold, the military said.

The deaths raise to 53 the number of American troops who have died in December, which is on track to being one of the deadliest months of the war. At least 2,941 members of the U.S. military have died the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

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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, told reporters in Geneva (for more on this story, click here).

The U.S.-led Multi-National Force in Iraq did not immediately have a detailed comment, but said that in general its forces tried to be respectful when dealing with Iraqi civilians.

Hoping for some good news, Iraqis also tuned in to watch their national soccer team face off against Qatar in the Asian Games finals. Iraq has made the final just once before, beating Kuwait 1-0 for gold in 1982 at New Delhi.

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 the British forces in the area, police said.

Britain has about 7,200 troops in southern Iraq, mostly stationed 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.

Gunmen also opened fire on a civilian near a bus station in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, killing him in a drive-by shooting, police in the city 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.

The Sanak area, which is dominated by auto parts shops and stalls selling other appliances, was calm Friday and businesses were closed for the weekly services.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the investigation was continuing into Thursday's abductions.

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.

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 wnet home directly," he said.

Another policeman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said the three witnesses said they had been handcuffed and blindfolded before they were released late Thursday in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad.

A Shiite cleric, meanwhile, called for U.S. forces to leave the country and warned the "bloodshed will continue" if Iraq's politicians don't stop fighting each other.

The comments by Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi during his Friday sermon in the Shiite district of Sadr City, came one the eve of a national reconciliation conference aimed at rallying ethnic, religious and political groups around a common strategy for handling Iraq's problems.

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