BAKHTARAN, Iran (AP) _ Riot police withdrew from a troubled neighborhood of this western city and shops began to open Saturday, days after fatal clashes sparked by the death of a religious leader.

Dozens of helmeted riot police who patrolled the Javanshir district earlier in the day were replaced by a handful of baton-wielding policemen stationed on street corners. Shops shuttered for days began to open.

Thousands of protesters rampaged Wednesday after hearing rumors that Mullah Mohammad Rabii, a Sunni religious leader, had been assassinated by the government.

Officials said the 64-year-old Rabii had died of a heart attack.

Several witnesses said they recognized no religious leaders among the protesters and said the riots may have been instigated. But they said they had no idea who would have encouraged the clashes in this city of 700,000, 280 miles southwest of the Iranian capital, Tehran.

Witnesses said Hojatoleslam Zarandi, the Friday prayer leader of the province, was on his way to attend Rabii's funeral when shots were fired at him from among the crowd gathered to mourn the Sunni leader.

A police officer, Col. Ali Akbar Najafi, opened fire with a handgun to defend the cleric. He killed several protesters and wounded several others before being shot dead, witnesses said.

In the ensuing melee, several more people were killed and wounded but witnesses could not give figures.

Iran's main exile opposition group, the Iraq-based Mujahedeen Khalq, reported dozens of protesters killed and hundreds wounded in cities in the province.

It said nine people had been killed and 60 wounded in rioting in the city of Bakhtaran, the provincial capital.

Another exile opposition group, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, reported violence in several other cities in the province.

The opposition reports could not be independently confirmed.

Official Tehran radio said Thursday that several people were arrested after unrest during a funeral for Rabii. It gave no reports of fatalities.

Rabii was a leader of the mainstream Sunni Muslim sect, a minority in overwhelmingly Shiite Iran. He also worked for the state-run radio and television network.

Sunnis are tolerated by Iran's clerical Shiite government, but they are viewed with suspicion. The rift between the two sects dates back to shortly after the death of Islam's prophet, Mohammed, in 632 A.D.