Iraqi police exchanged fire with gunmen near a holy shrine and cemetery in Najaf early Friday, detaining two of them suspected of participating in the killing of a senior Shia cleric in the holy city last month.

 

Abdel-Khaliq Al-Kaabi, head of a volunteer civilian police force in Najaf, located some 160 kilometres south of Baghdad, told reporters that Mahr Al-Baghdadi and a man identified only as Ihsan were arrested.

 

An Iraqi policeman stands guard
at a Najaf cemetery.

He said they were among a group of about 10 men who fired AK-47s and threw a hand grenade in the streets around the Imam Ali shrine, where thousands of Iraqi Shias made a pilgrimage earlier this week marking the death of Islam's Prophet Mohammad.

 

Two civilians were injured in the skirmish near Rasool street. Baghdadi had a bullet wound in the side but was in hospital in stable condition, said Al-Kaabi.

 

"We received information about the presence of the suspects in the shrine area," he said. "They are among those wanted by the civil administration in an announcement issued when Khoei was killed," he added, referring to senior cleric Abdul Majid Al-Khoei, who returned to Iraq last month from exile in London.

 

After the men were taken into the police station, seven others stormed the station from a cemetery with AK-47s to try to free them, he said. 

 

"We pursued them into the cemetery," he said.

 

Watching from a roof, a witness said he saw the exchange of fire between the station and the cemetery behind it. Cars were turned back from the main road in front of the station.

 

The incident before dawn was a reminder that security is still weak in many Iraqi cities after the US-led war which ousted President Saddam Hussein. Many cities have been hard pressed to cope with the looting and random shootings after the collapse of the Baathist government.

 

 Najaf is spiritual home to Iraq's Shias, who make up 60 percent of the country's population, and its clerics wield much influence across the country.