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By Jim Krane
Fallujah, Iraq - A massive explosion rocked a mosque in this restive Iraqi town, killing at least five Iraqi civilians and injuring four others, witnesses and hospital officials said on Tuesday. Iraqi civilians said the blast was caused by a missile or bomb strike, but American soldiers at the scene disputed that account, saying it was probably caused when explosives hidden at the site went off.
Meanwhile, a huge explosion over the weekend at an ammunitions depot killed at least three people and injured four in Hadithah, 240km northwest of Baghdad, according to initial reports from the United States military. It was not immediately clear who the ammunition belonged to or what caused the explosion.
The incident at the al-Hassan mosque in Fallujah was likely to increase tension in the town, already the scene of several confrontations between US soldiers and anti-American insurgents.
Witnesses said the blast occurred just before 11pm on Monday in a small cinderblock building in the courtyard of the mosque. The explosion blew out the walls and took down the roof of the structure.
Hours after the explosion, dozens of people gathered around the destroyed mosque shouting anti-American slogans amid the rubble.
"There is no God but Allah, America is the enemy of God," they chanted, as a crane lifted large pieces of concrete from the site. An eyewitness said that after the evening prayer, he heard aircraft hovering overhead and then heard the sound of the explosion.
On Tuesday morning about a dozen Iraqis remained, sifting through the rubble for pieces of metal they said proved the damage was caused by an American attack.
"These are pieces of a missile," said Aqeel Ibrahim Ali, 26, who was standing on a concrete slab overlooking the destruction, holding out a box filled with metal shards. "An airplane shot a missile."
But Sergeant Thomas McMurtry, a reservist with the 346th Tactical Psychological Operations Company, said there was no evidence the explosion was caused by a US attack.
"They did it to themselves. Clearly, the physical evidence does not support that (a missile strike) in any way," he said. "Whatever blew up was just sitting inside there. There is no evidence that it was anything else but a ground based explosive.
McMurtry, a schoolteacher based in Dayton, Ohio who said he is a former special forces engineer with munitions training, said that if the explosion had been caused by a bomb or missile, there would be evidence of shrapnel. He said US army ordnance disposal personnel had scanned the wreckage and saw no sign of a missile strike.
There have been several cases of explosives being discovered at mosques, which make ideal hiding places because US troops are hesitant to raid them. The US military headquarters in Baghdad said it had no information on the incident.
It was unclear who the Iraqi victims were, or what they were doing at the mosque late on Monday.
Fallujah, 55km west of Baghdad, has been a hotbed of anti-American activity. US soldiers shot and killed 20 protesters in April, provoking widespread resentment.
On Monday, a van pulled up to a US observation post in the town and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a Bradley fighting vehicle, but didn't cause any injuries, the military said. Soldiers returned fire and killed one man in the van.
Despite the unrest, tribal elders in the city insist that the people want to co-operate with US occupation authorities.
On Tuesday, a US sweep to snuff out remaining pockets of anti-occupation resistance in the so-called "Sunni triangle" north and east of Baghdad, entered its third day.
Troops detained a colonel from Saddam's Baath Party along with five other individuals, a military statement said on Monday, without providing details. The statement said at least 319 Iraqis have been detained in several operations, though none of Iraq's most wanted fugitives are believed to be among them.
US troops have been increasingly targeted in recent weeks, raising fears that their mission will become mired by a guerrilla-style insurgency. At least 20 American and six British troops have been killed by hostile fire since US President George Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1. There have been no reports of US casualties since the sweep began, the military said.
In other news, American troops moved in force to arrest the US-appointed mayor of the southern town of Najaf, 180km southwest of Baghdad, removing him on kidnapping and corruption charges and detaining 62 of his aides - a step likely to please Najaf's Shi'a residents.
The arrest came less than three months after the mayor, Abu Haydar Abdul Mun'im, was installed by American troops after they entered the town in April. The former Iraqi army colonel was unpopular from the start with the local population because of his background in Saddam Hussein's military.
Invading forcces made the arrest at the request of an Iraqi investigative judge in Najaf, said a statement by the US-led provisional authority.
Abdul Mun'im was replaced by Haydar Mahdi Mattar al Mayali, a former deputy in the mayor's office.
Southern Iraq, dominated by Shi'a Muslims who largely hated Saddam, has seen less violence in recent weeks - though many Shi'a have rankled at US domination. One of the country's top Shi'a clerics, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, this week, denouncing US administrators' plans to appoint a council to draw up a new constitution and demanding elections so Iraqis can elect their own constitutional convention.
"There is no guarantee that the council would create a constitution conforming with the greater interests of the Iraqi people and expressing the national identity, whose basis is Islam and its noble social values," read the fatwa, dated Saturday and posted on al-Sistani's website.
The ayatollah called for elections to pick delegates to a constitutional convention and a referendum to approve any constitution it draws up. Al-Sistani, one of Iraq's most influential people, has been largely supportive of American interests since Saddam's ouster - and it wasn't clear how the fatwa would affect US plans for a new government.
Al-Sistani and another senior Shi'a cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, said on Monday that they favoured a peaceful end to the US occupation, and its replacement by a representative Iraqi government.
"What we want is the formation of a government that represents the will of the Iraqi people, by all its sects and ethnic groups," said al-Sistani. - Sapa-AP