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US forces battle Sadr militia

Najaf, Aug. 6 (Reuters): US marines said today they had killed 300 fighters loyal to a firebrand Iraqi Shia cleric in fierce clashes that pose a stern test for an interim government struggling to stamp its authority over the country.

A spokesman for cleric Moqtada al-Sadr denied that many fighters had been killed in the holy city of Najaf in the past two days.

He said 36 militiamen died in several Iraqi cities from clashes that have fuelled fears of a new rebellion of radical Shias. The fresh fighting, which still raged today, marks a major challenge for US-backed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and appears to have destroyed a two-month-old ceasefire between American 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, 160 km south of Baghdad.

“The Marines are here and I think you know how they operate. If you kill a Marine, the Marines are going to fight back.” Johnston said two Marines had been killed and 12 wounded.

He said the Mehdi fighters were badly coordinated and shot at random against the heavily armed Marines who were backed up by F-16 fighter jets, AC-130 gunships and helicopters. Much of the fighting took place around the mausoleums and small caves of Najaf’s ancient Shia cemetery, the largest in the Arab world and a popular sanctuary for Mehdi fighters.

In Najaf’s streets, market stalls burned as ordinary Iraqis cowered in their homes. Thick black smoke rose over the city.

Despite the marine onslaught, hundreds of Mehdi militia carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades roamed the city near Najaf’s shrines, some of the holiest in Shia Islam. Gunfire damaged the dome of the Imam Ali shrine, some said.

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

The US-appointed governor of Najaf put the militia death toll at 400, with 1,000 captured. He said he had information 80 Iranians were fighting alongside Sadr’s militia, whom he ordered to leave the city in 24 hours.

Sheikh Raed al-Qathimi, a spokesman for Sadr, rebuffed the American version of the death toll. “I categorically deny these American lies,” he said. Tension had been rising in Najaf since Iraqi security forces surrounded Sadr’s house earlier this week.

But US officials said fighting escalated when Marines came to the aid of badly outgunned Iraqi police who were attacked by insurgents wielding heavy weapons early yesterday. Colonel Anthony Haslam, the Marine base commander and chief of operations in Najaf, estimated the number of Mehdi fighters at more than 2,000.

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

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