BAGHDAD, Iraq - Thousands of Shiite Muslims protested peacefully last night outside the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, alleging the occupation force was lax on security and did too little to stop a weekend of ethnic bloodshed in the north and the bombing at the house of an important Muslim Shiite cleric in the south.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said a soldier died of a nonhostile gunshot wound, bringing the number of soldiers killed since major combat was declared over to 138. A total of 276 soldiers have died in combat or by accident since the war began March 20.
The Baghdad protest moved after about an hour to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan office in Baghdad. The protesters alleged that the Kurdish organization started the fighting Friday night in Tuz Kharmato and continued attacks on Turkmen tribesmen the next day in Kirkuk, 115 miles north of Baghdad. Eleven people died.
The protesters dispersed quietly ahead of the 11 p.m. Baghdad curfew.
The Baghdad protesters, mainly from the Sadr City slum, had sided with the Turkmen, also Shiites. A PUK spokesman in Baghdad told the Associated Press that the violence was the work of sympathizers of Saddam Hussein's who are trying to complicate the tense security situation by adding the specter of ethnic and religious violence to the mix. Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims.
"They are trying to move the fighting [between Kurds and Turkmen] from Kirkuk and Tuz into Baghdad," said Adel Murad, a PUK spokesman.
In Najaf yesterday, mourners buried three guards who were killed in a bomb attack Sunday on the house of Mohammed Saeed Hakim, one of Iraq's most important Muslim Shiite clerics. The bomb, a gas cylinder wired to explode, was placed along an outside wall. A number of Hakim's relatives were wounded. He suffered cuts on his neck.
More than 1,000 mourners jammed the streets in Najaf calling for revenge against the attackers, whose identities were not known. The demonstrators blamed U.S. forces for failing to provide security in the town.
Iraqi newspapers reported last week that Hakim, who was under house arrest during the last days of Hussein's rule, had received threats against his life.
In Amman, Jordan, yesterday, members of Iraq's U.S.-backed Governing Council asked skeptical Arab leaders to judge it by its actions and promised to make way for an elected government as quickly as possible.
Council members are on a tour of the gulf region to bolster official Arab support for the interim authority's role in post-Hussein Iraq.
"The council is a legitimate step, and nobody has claimed it will be a permanent situation but a temporary one which will end soon once elections are held," the council's rotating president, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said after talks with Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abul-Ragheb and Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher.
Muasher said Jordan wants to cooperate with the council and "delivered its wish in providing all means of support for the Iraqi people until a permanent government is formed."
A delegation of 11 members of the U.S. Congress spoke with reporters in Baghdad yesterday afternoon under heavy security after meeting with coalition officials.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican, said the delegation was primarily concerned with ensuring that enough personnel were available to pacify the country.
Also yesterday, United Nations and U.S. officials handed over to grieving families the bodies of seven Iraqis killed in last week's suicide bombing of the United Nations' Baghdad headquarters and declared the investigation and search at the site completed.
Twenty-three people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, died in the blast, and more than 100 were injured. The officials said other people remain missing but declined to give figures.
David Roath, an investigator with the U.S. Army, said U.S. forces would continue to maintain security around the compound even though the search-and-rescue missions are complete.
North of Baghdad, U.S. forces captured seven men - two suspected to be Hussein loyalists and five people believed responsible for attacks on U.S. troops - during a series of raids in the deposed leader's hometown, the military said yesterday.