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US Troops Kill 7 Iraqis in Clash Over Oil Theft - 2004-01-12

The U.S. military says troops shot and killed seven Iraqis during a clash with an armed group that was trying to steal oil from a pipeline in central Iraq.

An American army spokesman says an informant led soldiers to a place north of the town of Samarra, where a group of 40 armed men were trying to steal fuel late Sunday.

The spokesman says the soldiers were fired at when they confronted the group, and the Americans returned fire. Seven Iraqis were killed and the others escaped. Three fuel trucks and other vehicles were destroyed.

The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has blamed sabotage, theft and smuggling for fuel shortages in Iraq, which has one of the world's largest reserves of oil.

In a separate incident, the military says one American soldier was killed and two wounded by a roadside bomb in Baghdad Monday.

Meanwhile, an influential Shi'ite cleric in Iraq is repeating his warning that a U.S. backed plan for an interim government without direct elections will hurt Iraq's political and security situation.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani says the transition plan would give rise to an illegitimate government. He issued the statement after meeting with members of the U.S.-ppointed Iraqi Governing Council.

The transition plan, agreed to by the U.S.-led Coalition authority and the Governing Council, calls for nationwide caucuses to chose a Transitional National Assembly, which in turn would appoint an interim government in June.

Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani wants a directly elected government from the outset.

Iraqi and coalition officials say the country will not be prepared to hold national elections until next year. They cite Iraq's security situation and problems in determining eligible voters.