NAJAF, Iraq — One of Iraq's most prominent politicians and his entourage were pelted with rocks and shoes Sunday as they left a shrine, escalating tensions between religious and secular Shiite Muslim factions 11 days before a parliamentary election that will set the country's course for the next four years.
Iyad Allawi, the former interim prime minister who now leads the Iraqi National List coalition, said he and his bodyguards were also attacked with gunfire in an assassination attempt outside the Imam Ali shrine in this Euphrates River city. Local authorities disputed the claim.
Allawi and his deputies suggested that supporters of cleric Muqtada Sadr, who is aligned with a rival Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, had planned the attack. Sadr's aides brushed aside the accusations.
The incident highlighted long-simmering antagonism between the secular, tough-talking Allawi and religious Shiites ahead of the Dec. 15 parliamentary election. Allawi's ideologically far-flung grouping of pro-Western democrats and former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is vying with the United Iraqi Alliance's clergy-led list of Islamic parties for votes among the nation's Shiite majority.
In Baghdad on Sunday, two U.S. soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near their convoy. A similar munition also killed two civilians in a downtown square. In separate incidents throughout the capital, gunmen assassinated a police lieutenant colonel, two police officers, an army major, a university professor and a Shiite cleric loyal to Sadr.
Iraq's national security advisor, meanwhile, said authorities had uncovered an insurgent plot to fire rockets at the court trying Hussein when proceedings resume today. It was not clear whether anyone was arrested.
In addition, one of the five trial judges has recused himself after a document surfaced linking a defendant to the killing of the jurist's brother, a court official said. An alternate judge was reportedly ready to step in.
Sunday's melee in Najaf erupted after Allawi prayed at the shrine, which houses the tomb of the prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and is widely considered the most sacred Islamic site in Iraq.
As a crowd of between 50 and 70 men hit Allawi with rocks as well as footwear -- the latter act considered a dreadful insult by Muslims -- his bodyguards surrounded him, fired weapons into the air and hustled him to safety. He was escorted to a U.S. military base north of Najaf before returning to the capital, an Allawi representative in Najaf said.
Speaking before TV cameras in Baghdad after the incident, an angry Allawi suggested that those responsible for the melee were linked to the people who killed moderate Shiite cleric Abdul Majid Khoei in Najaf in 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Iraqi authorities have alleged that Sadr had a hand in that slaying, though he has never been arrested.
Allawi said the attackers, captured on videotape, wore black, as do members of the Al Mahdi army, a militia loyal to Sadr.
"They were chanting similar chants they were saying during the Khoei assassination," said Allawi, who as interim prime minister approved a U.S. assault on rebellious Shiites in Najaf last year. "They were trying to assassinate all the delegation, or at least to kill me."
Saheb Ameri, head of a Najaf cultural institute controlled by Sadr, said the cleric's followers had nothing to do with Sunday's incident. "It was not organized," he said. "It was just people's ordinary reaction. The people expressed themselves toward secular, unpatriotic leaders."
Allawi called on local and national authorities to investigate the attack. He avoided death, he said, only because one of the assailants fumbled his weapon.
Sunday night, Najaf Gov. Asad abu Kalal rejected the assassination claim. He told reporters there were no weapons involved. "The people involved used stones and shoes," he said at a news conference.
He also laid part of the blame for the scuffle on Allawi because he visited the shrine accompanied by Western security contractors and without informing Najaf security forces.
He described Allawi's visit as "provocative" because it coincided with the annual commemoration of the assassination of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, Muqtada's father.
Many Najaf residents resent Allawi for permitting the U.S. to attack the city and ferret out Al Mahdi militiamen. Weeks of gun battles between American troops and Sadr's ragtag army left the city in shambles, choked off the budding religious pilgrimage business and led to the destruction of parts of Najaf's ancient, hallowed cemetery.
Allawi's representative in Najaf said the slate had had a tough time in the city, with thousands of its campaign posters ripped down in recent weeks. "We are subjected to threats 24 hours a day from the United Iraqi Alliance," Abdul Issawi said.
Times staff writer Daragahi reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Fakhrildeen from Najaf. Staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Baghdad contributed to this report.