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Iraqi officials say 3 gold jewelers killed during robbery in southern city of Basra

BAGHDAD (AP) — Masked gunmen killed three jewelers before fleeing with a large amount of gold in a sophisticated attack Wednesday in southern Iraq, underscoring fears that street crime is soaring as sectarian fighting wanes.

The heist in the Shiite stronghold of Basra came two weeks after a similar robbery in Baghdad that left 15 dead.

Six gunmen stormed into three gold jewelry shops in the center of Basra shortly before 8 p.m., killed the owners, then fled with a large amount of jewelry, according to police and hospital officials.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said two people were wounded, including a customer and the father of one of those killed.

Police cordoned off the area, but the assailants had cars waiting for them and escaped.

Nobody claimed responsibility. But the head of the security committee of the Basra provincial council, Ali al-Maliki, said it was a well-planned attack in which the gunmen used pistols with silencers to avoid drawing attention.

Security officials attribute at least part of the past year's crime wave to militant groups looking for new ways to finance their operations as well as criminal gangs.

Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, was long controlled by Shiite militias before a U.S.-Iraqi military crackdown in 2008.

The heist was the deadliest attack on a day that saw six people killed in bombings and shootings.

A suicide bomber riding on a motorcycle killed two bystanders and wounded five others while targeting an American military convoy in Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad, police spokesman Maj. Ghalib al-Karkhi said.

Two other people also were killed in separate shootings and bombings in Baghdad and Tal Afar, in northwest Iraq.

Iran's ambassador to Iraq, meanwhile, denied allegations that Iranian troops crossed the border into the northern, self-rule Kurdish region with tanks and artillery last week.

The denial came after the Iraqi government protested to Tehran over heavy shelling in the region as Iranian troops pursue Kurdish rebels who are based across the border.

Kurdish officials also have said Iranian troops crossed the border near Haj Omran, a mountainous resort in an area that has for years seen sporadic clashes between Iranian forces and a Kurdish rebel group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, or PEJAK.

The Kurds said the Iranians had begun building an outpost and a road leading back to the Iranian side of the border.

On Wednesday, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, the Iraqi army chief of staff who is a Kurd, told The Associated Press the Iranian troops are still inside his country.

Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran's ambassador to Iraq, said the reports of Iranian troops entering Iraq are "false and unfounded." Quoted by the Iranian semiofficial Mehr news agency, he said the charges would damage Iraq-Iran relations.

Iran and Iraq have a tense relationship with ups and downs depending on the regimes in the two neighboring countries. They fought a long, bloody war in the 1980s.

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Associated Press Writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.