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Iraqis arrest 5 in connection with Basra bombings

Police allege links to al Qaeda but refuse to specify them

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CNN's Jane Arraf reports on Basra, which had been relatively quiet -- until car bombs left scores dead.

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BASRA, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi police confirmed Friday that five Iraqis have been arrested in connection with this week's suicide attacks in the Basra region, and said the five are suspected of having links to the al Qaeda terror network.

The bombings, at police stations in Basra and a police training facility in Az Zubayr, killed 74 people and wounded 160 others.

Col. Ali Abdullah, a Basra policeman, could not say why the five were thought to have links to al Qaeda and could not say where in Iraq they came from.

They were arrested Thursday in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Basra. Large explosives were also confiscated.

The men are in custody and are being interrogated, Abdullah said.

Wael Abdel Latif, Basra's provincial governor, said Thursday that another man was arrested near the Az Zubayr training center.

The man's presence sparked curiosity because he is from Fallujah, a largely Sunni city. Basra is largely Shiite.

Sunnis lost their positions and power when the Sunni-led regime of Saddam Hussein was ousted.

New violence, fresh threats

A tenuous cease-fire has held in Fallujah in recent days while negotiators have tried to get insurgents to lay down their arms and allow humanitarian aid to reach the 200,000 residents, many of whom have abandoned their homes.

On Friday, Bremer said a military offensive in the city "could resume on short notice" if progress isn't made in disarming the guerrillas.

In the country's latest violence, a roadside bomb attack Friday on a U.S. convoy near Samarra killed a 1st Infantry Division soldier, the military said.

More than 100 U.S. troops have been killed in April, the most deadly month for U.S. troops since the start of the invasion last year.

Almost 600 U.S. troops have been wounded in the past two weeks, about 3,864 since the war began, according to official Defense Department numbers released Friday.

Most of the troops were wounded after President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1, 2003.

Almost 1,400 of the wounded were able to return to duty after being treated, but 2,470 had wounds serious enough to prevent them from returning to the battlefield, according to the numbers released by the Pentagon.

A Bulgarian soldier was shot and killed in an ambush while on a patrol in the holy Shiite city of Karbala. He is the sixth soldier from Bulgaria to be killed. The Mehdi Army, the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is suspected of staging the attack.

Al-Sadr delivered another fiery message in a sermon Friday, threatening suicide attacks if U.S. forces conduct military operations in Karbala and Najaf.

At a prayer service in Najaf, al-Sadr said his followers would "shed blood to keep our holy city," according to Reuters.

Troops have been dispatched to the area, and the vicinity of the city hall was reinforced.

The U.S. military continues to mass troops around Najaf, where al-Sadr is based, as talks with al-Sadr's forces attempt to defuse the crisis in the city, where the Mehdi Army has established control.

"Lots of believers, men and women, came to me and asked permission to become martyrs and to execute martyrdom operations. I keep telling them to wait," Reuters quoted the cleric as saying.

"But if there was an assault on our cities or on our religious authorities, we will be time bombs and will not stop before destroying enemy forces."

In the sermon, al-Sadr condemned and denied involvement in this week's deadly attacks in Basra and in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, calling the bombings terrorist attacks.

Al-Sadr is wanted by Iraqi authorities in connection with the killing of a rival cleric, and coalition forces have threatened to arrest or kill him.

Some ex-Baathists allowed to return to work

Speaking Friday on Iraqi television, the top U.S. civilian administrator announced changes to the policy that the coalition calls "de-Baathification" -- the effort to lessen the influence of former loyalists to Saddam's Baath Party over the new Iraq. That policy had made it impossible for thousands to work, particularly schoolteachers and senior military officers.

During his remarks, L. Paul Bremer said de-Baathification is the "right" policy but has been "poorly implemented," particularly as it affects teachers and professors, who were forced to join and were party members in name only.

"These is no room in the new Iraq for Baathist ideology, for Baathist criminals. Banning the party and removing from public life those who used it to commit crimes was necessary and remains necessary," he said.

But he said "many Iraqis have complained to me that de-Baathification policy has been applied unevenly and unjustly. I've looked into these complaints, and they are legitimate."

He said schoolteachers and university professors who were affiliated with the Baathists in name only will be allowed to return to their jobs.

Decisions made by local appeals committees on the cases of teachers trying to get their jobs back "will be effective immediately."

"This will allow thousands of teachers to return to work. Thousands more will begin receiving pensions this week."

He also asked that cases of university professors be pursued with the same urgency.

"Professors who did not use their posts to intimidate others or commit crimes should be allowed to return to work promptly," Bremer said.

Bremer and other coalition officials say some senior officers under the Saddam regime could return to the military after they are vetted and if it is determined they didn't commit crimes as Baathists. The military has said the need for such senior officers is pressing now as the security services grow.

As for Fallujah, coalition officials said that though the situation has calmed in recent days, steps toward peace, such as the seizure and return of heavy arms, must progress.

Speaking at a news conference, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the coalition "has been very, very consistent over the past 14 days" that the negotiations with Fallujah leaders "must bear fruit."

"Our patience is not eternal, and if we don't start seeing some results of these discussions, some good-faith efforts on the part of the enemy, we are prepared to end the suspension of offensive operations and resume them," Kimmitt said.

Asked about a time frame, Kimmitt said, "I think we're talking days."

CNN's Jane Arraf, Jim Clancy, Arwa Damon, John King, Mike Mount and Kianne Sadeq contributed to this report.

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