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US says 300 fighters killed in Najaf battle
Updated: 2004-08-07 00:48

US marines have killed an estimated 300 fighters loyal to a firebrand Iraqi Shi'ite cleric in fierce clashes around the holy city of Najaf in the past two days, a senior US officer said on Friday.

A spokesman for radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr denied that many fighters had been killed. He said 36 militiamen had been killed in several Iraqi cities from clashes that have fueled fears of a new rebellion of radical Shi'ites.

Smoke rises over the holy city of Najaf as battles rage between Shi'ite militiaman and their US Marine and Iraqi security forces, August 6, 2004. US forces backed by helicopters battled militia loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr near a cemetery in the holy city, fueling fears of a second Shi'ite uprising. [Reuters]
The fresh fighting, which still raged on Friday, marks a major challenge for the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and appears to have destroyed a two-month-old cease-fire between US forces and Sadr's Mehdi militia.

"The number of enemy casualties is 300 KIA (killed in action)," Lieutenant Colonel Gary Johnston, operations officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said at a military base near the city, 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Johnston told reporters the Mehdi fighters were badly coordinated and shot at random against the heavily armed marines who were backed up by helicopter gunships and fighter planes.

"There is fighting right now. In some ways it is not as intense as yesterday," he said.

"If you are on the ground, it makes no difference. But the marines are here and I think you know how they operate. If you kill a marine, the marines are going to fight back."

US military officials said there were indications that foreign fighters had joined the Mehdi militia.

Criminal gangs were also involved, they said.

Asked about American casualties, Johnston said there were two dead and 12 wounded from the two days of fighting.

The US-appointed governor of Najaf put the militia death toll at 400, with 1,000 captured. He said he had information that 80 Iranians were fighting alongside Sadr's militia.

Sheik Raed al-Qathimi, a spokesman for Sadr, rebuffed the American version of the death toll.

"I categorically deny these American lies," he said.


British and Italian troops also fought the Mehdi militia across Shi'ite-dominated southern Iraq -- in Basra, Amara and Nassiriya -- while fighting raged in Sadr City and Shoula, two Shi'ite districts of Baghdad.

The Health Ministry said fighting in Sadr City alone had killed 20 Iraqis and wounded 114 since early on Thursday, while in Nassiriya six were dead and 13 wounded.

The flare-up of tension with radical members of Iraq's majority community comes after Shi'ite militants rose up across south and central Iraq in April and May.

Iraq's interim government expressed confidence it would deal with the crisis.

"We have every confidence in our new government, our security forces and our allies to contain this conflict," Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said.

In the previous uprising, hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of US troops were killed.

Yet Sadr, a young cleric with an ardent following among poor, disaffected youths, appeared keen to stop the latest fighting. Via another spokesman in Baghdad, he called for a resumption of a truce struck in June.

"We have no objections to entering negotiations to solve this crisis," Mahmoud al-Sudani told reporters. "As I have said in the name of Sayed Sadr, we want a resumption of the truce."

While Sadr may be popular with frustrated young Shi'ites, many of Iraq's mainstream community follow Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shi'ite cleric in Iraq who has carefully and quietly tried to keep a lid on Sadr's agitating.

In a worrying move for his followers, Sistani, a 73-year-old Iranian-born cleric, flew to London on Friday for treatment for a heart problem, sources said.


Tension has been rising in Najaf since Iraqi security forces surrounded Sadr's house earlier this week.

US marines recently replaced the US Army in Najaf and analysts have suggested the upsurge in violence is linked to the marines taking a more aggressive approach with Sadr's militia.

At the same time, attempts by the interim government to draw Sadr into the mainstream appear to have faltered, which may have prompted the cleric to redouble his militant approach.

Militiamen shot down a US helicopter as it was trying to evacuate a wounded soldier on Thursday. No one was killed, but the pilots were wounded.

Early on Friday F-16s, AC-130 gunships and helicopters patrolled the skies over Najaf, covering U.S. troops battling insurgents in and around Najaf's cemetery, the largest in the Arab world and a safe haven for militants.

Fighting also flared near Najaf's shrines, some of the holiest in Shi'ite Islam, and some said that gunfire had damaged the dome of the Imam Ali shrine.

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