Iraqi Forces Take Lead in Battle Near Najaf

A major battle is triggered near Iraq's holy city of Najaf as Iraqi-led forces launch an offensive on a previously unknown militant group known as the Army of Heaven.

About 300 Iraqi militants died and a U.S. helicopter was shot down, killing two Americans on board. Andrew North of the BBC discusses the battle with Renee Montagne.

Fighting in Najaf Takes High Toll

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi officials said Monday that 300 militants were killed in a fierce battle between U.S.-backed Iraqi

troops and insurgents allegedly plotting to kill pilgrims at a major Shiite Muslim religious festival. Elsewhere, bombings and mortar attacks targeting Shiites killed at least 15 people.

The fighting that began Sunday near the Shiite holy city of Najaf had largely subsided by Monday as Iraqi security forces

frisked suspects while others patrolled elsewhere on the battlefield.

A U.S. helicopter crashed during the fight, killing two American soldiers whose bodies were recovered, the military said. The

statement did not give any information on why the aircraft crashed — the second U.S. military helicopter to go down in eight days.

Ahmed Deaibil, a spokesman for Najaf province, said the fighting had continued until 4 a.m. Monday, but U.S. and Iraqi forces still had the area surrounded and had seized heavy machine guns, ammunition and other weapons.

Citing reports from commanders on the ground, he said 300 militants had been killed and 13 arrested, while the casualty toll

for Iraqi forces was three soldiers and two policemen killed and 30 wounded.

Brig. Gen. Fadhil Barwari also said 300 militants had been killed, including 30 Afghans and Saudis, and 20 were captured.

Iraqi security officials said earlier that one Sudanese was among the fighters detained.

The figures could not be independently confirmed. The Iraqi Defense Ministry, which oversees the army, said it could not yet

give a casualty toll because sporadic fighting was ongoing.

Attacks, meanwhile, struck Shiite targets in the Baghdad area as the Islamic sect marks Ashoura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar commemorating the 7th century death of Imam Hussein. The celebration culminates Tuesday in huge public processions in Najaf, Karbala and other Shiite cities.

A prominent Shiite leader said that setting up federal regions in Iraq would solve the country's problems, adding that while

Shiites are being subjected to mass killings, they should not retaliate by using violence.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shiite bloc in the 275-member parliament, spoke at a Shiite mosque in central Baghdad to mark Ashoura. "I reaffirm that the establishing of regions will help us in solving many problems that we are suffering from. Moreover, it represents the best solution for these problems," he said.

Al-Hakim said his concern cut across sectarian lines.

"I sympathize with our Sunni brothers in their ordeal with the terrorists as I sympathize with the Shiites in their ordeal with the terrorists," he said. "I condemn the killing of Sunnis as I condemn the killing of the Shiites."

Mortar rounds rained down on a Shiite neighborhood in the Sunni-dominated town of Jurf al-Sakhar, 40 miles south of Baghdad,

Monday morning, police spokesman Capt. Muthanna Khalid said. He said 10 were killed, including three children and four women, and five other people were wounded.

A wounded boy lay next to his blood-stained father at a hospital in the nearby town of Musayyib, while six bodies were covered with blankets in the morgue.

The strike came a day after mortar shells hit the courtyard of a girls' school in a mostly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Baghdad, killing five pupils and wounding 20. U.N. officials deplored Sunday's attack, calling the apparent targeting of children "an unforgivable crime."

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but a Sunni organization, the General Conference of the People of Iraq, blamed Shiite Muslim militias with ties to government security forces. The group said the mortar shells bore markings indicating they were manufactured in Iran, which U.S. officials accuse of supporting Shiite militias.

On Monday, a parked car bomb also struck a bus carrying Shiites to a holy shrine in northern Baghdad, killing at least four people and wounding six, police said.

The blast occurred when a small car parked nearby exploded about 9:30 a.m. as the pilgrims were boarding the bus on Palestine

Street. The bus, which was completely burned out, had been heading to Kazimiyah, which is home to the most important Shiite mosque in the capital.

Elsewhere, a bomb hidden under a concrete barrier exploded as workers were paving a street in an intersection in a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Baghdad, killing one worker and wounding two others, police said.

Authorities said Iraqi soldiers supported by U.S. aircraft fought all day Sunday with a large group of insurgents in the Zaraq area, about 12 miles northeast of the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Provincial Gov. Assad Sultan Abu Kilel said the assault was launched because the insurgents planned to attack Shiite pilgrims and clerics during ceremonies marking Ashoura.

Officials were unclear about the religious affiliation of the militants. Although Sunni Arabs have been the main force behind

insurgent groups, there are a number of Shiite militant and splinter groups that have clashed from time to time with the government.

Iraqi soldiers attacked at dawn and militants hiding in orchards fought back with automatic weapons, sniper rifles and rockets, the governor said. He said the insurgents were members of a previously unknown group called the Army of Heaven.

"They are well-equipped and they even have anti-aircraft missiles," the governor said. "They are backed by some locals"

loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

The mortar attacks and bombings appeared to be part of the sectarian reprisal killings that have pushed Iraq into civil

warfare over the past year, violence that President Bush hopes to quell by sending up to 21,500 more American soldiers to Baghdad and surrounding areas.

U.S. officials have long accused al-Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni Muslim group, of fanning sectarian hatreds by staging vicious

attacks on Shiite civilians. Revenge killings have surged since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the largely Sunni city of Samarra last Feb. 22.

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