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Marines report 300 insurgents killed in Najaf

Baghdad clashes have left 20 Iraqis dead

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- About 300 militia fighters have been killed in the south-central Iraqi city of Najaf in fighting since Thursday, U.S. military officials said.

But the Mehdi Army, the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, disputed the U.S. figures. A spokesman for al-Sadr, Sheikh Raed Al-Kadhim, said 36 fighters had been killed and 70 wounded.

Two Marines were killed Friday in the gunbattles, according to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which also released the estimate of dead militia fighters.

Marines had joined Iraqi forces to fight al-Sadr's militia in Najaf, one of Iraq's holiest cities. The U.S. military did not say how the Marines were killed.

With few reporters present in the city, it may be difficult to ascertain the number of militia casualties.

Scott Baldauf, a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor who was in Najaf on Thursday, told CNN that the electric and water supplies to the city had been cut off and estimated that dozens of civilians were among the casualties in the violence.

"What we did see were civilian casualties at the main hospital in Najaf," Baldauf said. "Many of them had suffered bullet shot wounds and shrapnel as well."

On Thursday, the U.S. military reported one 13th Corps Support Command soldier was killed and five wounded when their convoy was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire near Najaf. So far, 926 U.S. troops have died since the U.S. invasion last year.

Najaf officials also reported the deaths of an Iraqi hospital worker, two Iraqi civilians and an Iraqi police officer.

The fighting started before dawn Thursday when the Mehdi Army militia repeatedly attacked the city's main police station, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

A U.S. military statement described the attack as "an overt violation of the cease-fire agreement" reached in June between multinational forces and al-Sadr.

"All of these terrorists and killers are working for the same organization regardless of which banners they carry or which hats they wear," said Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Nakib. "They attacked Iraqi police, and we must respond. We have the thugs isolated. Our police forces, supported by the multinational force, are doing their job."

Another al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad on Friday blamed the Americans for breaking the cease-fire agreement and said Najaf's governor "was the primary cause of the latest uprising."

"We in the office of al-Sadr think that the Americans didn't fulfill their commitment that they made to the Shiite house to put effort to make peace," Sheikh Mahmoud al-Soudani said.

He denied reports of kidnappings by the Mehdi Army as well as the initiation of attacks on police stations.

"We certainly want peace and want to end the uprising, but we are forced to defend ourselves," al-Soudani said. "The Mehdi Army in Najaf is defending itself. ... Every one of them is defending himself and the holy sites.

"The Americans are too involved in this uprising, and they are worsening the situation. ... We think that it is the Najaf governor who is putting the Americans in this position."

Video obtained by Turkish network IHA showed fighters in Najaf, most of them dressed in civilian clothing, roaming the streets with rocket-propelled grenades. The video also showed U.S. tanks rolling through the dusty streets and American aircraft overhead.

The clashes took place in Najaf's city center, near the Imam Ali mosque, according to the Iraqi Defense Ministry and the governor's office.

The violence began Monday as an al-Sadr spokesman accused U.S. forces of being involved in an operation against the cleric. The spokesman said U.S. and Iraqi forces surrounded and fired at al-Sadr's home in a neighborhood of Najaf. The cleric's Mehdi Army began to shoot back, and a gunbattle continued for hours, he said.

A senior official with the multinational forces said no U.S. troops were used. The Najaf governor did not request U.S. support till Wednesday.

Clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City

Clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood between U.S. forces and the Medhi Army militia left 20 Iraqis dead and 114 others wounded, officials said.

The Iraqi deaths included civilians and fighters, who died during the battles that began Thursday and lasted into the night.

U.S. soldiers battled small bands of the Mehdi Army with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, Capt. Brian O'Malley of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division said. O'Malley said the fighters were "quickly dispersed or obliterated."

Sadr City is a poor Shiite neighborhood named after al-Sadr's late father.

Other developments

  • Four Lebanese truck drivers traveling on a road between Baghdad and Ramadi have been taken hostage, Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid said Friday. Obeid had no details on any demands made by kidnappers and said his government was in contact with several organizations inside Iraq to get more information on the hostages and their abductors.
  • British troops fought two gunbattles Thursday with Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra, the British Ministry of Defense said. The troops were "engaged by small-arms fire" in Basra's city center, and one militia member was killed in each battle, a British spokeswoman said. No coalition casualties or damage were reported.
  • Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric is in London, where he will be treated for a heart condition, the AP reported. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 73, was to go immediately to an unnamed clinic, a spokesman told the AP. He holds huge sway over Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority. Al-Sistani lives in Najaf. (Full story)
  • CNN's Cal Perry and freelance journalist Mohammed Shareef contributed to this report.

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