NAJAF, Iraq – U.S. helicopter gunships and fighter jets pounded Shiite Muslim insurgents hiding in a sprawling cemetery Friday in the most intense fighting in this holy city since the fall of Saddam Hussein (search). The U.S. military said 300 militants were killed in the past two days.
The clashes between coalition forces and militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's (search) Mahdi Army flared in Shiite communities across the country, killing dozens of other Iraqis, according to Iraqi officials and the militants.
The fighting, which began early Thursday, threatened to re-ignite the bloody, two-month Shiite insurrection that broke out in April — and the heavy U.S. response appeared designed to quash militia activity quickly and prevent a repeat.
Al-Sadr on Friday blamed all the violence in Iraq on the United States, which he called "our enemy and the enemy of the people," in a sermon read on his behalf at the Kufa Mosque (search) near Najaf.
A renewed Shiite uprising would cause severe problems for Iraq's fledgling interim government as it tries to gain popular support and for coalition forces that are already struggling against Sunni militants.
The heavy battles came as the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani (search), arrived in Britain to receive medical treatment for what an aide called "a health crisis" involving his heart.
The 73-year-old ayatollah, who holds enormous influence among Iraq's Shiite majority, has played a largely moderating role, urging Shiites not to resort to anti-U.S. violence, and during al-Sadr's first uprising he played a role in trying to calm the crisis.
There was no information on the seriousness of al-Sistani's condition, but the trip was his first time out of Iraq in years. The aide, Sheik Hamed Khafaf, said al-Sistani "needs special treatment, but he is not in a deteriorated state."
Al-Sadr aides called for a return to the truces that have kept relative calm for the past two months, and other Shiite leaders were trying to restore a cease-fire.
The Iraqi government said it was determined to crush all militias in the country, including the Mahdi Army, and Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi gave the insurgents 24 hours to leave the city.
The Mahdi Army has proved difficult to put down in the past. It persisted despite heavy casualties during its first uprising, and U.S. commanders — hesitant to carry out a full-fledged assault in the holiest Shiite city — were forced to back down from vows to uproot the militia.
Intense fighting before dawn Friday hit Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, where 20 people were killed and 114 wounded during two days of fighting, the Health Ministry said. Separate attacks blamed on al-Sadr's followers wounded 15 American soldiers in Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The Najaf fighting dwarfed the clashes seen in the spring, residents said. Two U.S. Marines and an American soldier were killed in Najaf on Thursday, and 12 troops were wounded, the military said. The two days of fighting in Najaf also killed at least 13 civilians and wounded 58 others, according to hospital officials.
Gunfire and explosions rocked the city Friday as helicopters flew overhead. The streets were nearly deserted, shops were closed, and some residents near the cemetery fled with their belongings on carts. A dead woman lay abandoned on an empty sidewalk, Associated Press Television News footage showed.
Fire tore through a nearby outdoor market and smoke rose from several parts of the city.
U.S. Marines chased the militants into the massive cemetery, which the militants had been using as a base, military officials said. Helicopter gunships slammed insurgent positions in the cemetery, and Marines were sent in to root out militiamen, the military said.
The insurgents have taken advantage of the cemetery's location in the so-called Exclusion Zone — where U.S. forces were forbidden under the truces — to use as a base for attacks and a weapons storage site, said Lt. Col. Gary Johnston, operations officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
After the militiamen attacked a police station from the cemetery early Thursday, the U.S. military retaliated, he said.
U.S. Col. Anthony Haslam, chief of operations in Najaf, said 300 militants out of a total force of about 2,000 had been killed in Najaf since Thursday.
There was no independent confirmation of that number, which would be among the largest militant death tolls in a single engagement since the end of the war last year. The militiamen, who have their own clinics, rarely take their dead or wounded to city hospitals.
Ahmed al-Shaibany, an al-Sadr aide in Najaf, said only nine militants were killed and 20 injured in the city.
Al-Zurufi, the Najaf governor, estimated 400 militants were killed and 1,000 arrested. He also said 80 of the fighters at the cemetery were Iranian. "There is Iranian support to al-Sadr's group and this is no secret," he said.
Guerrillas attacked a convoy of U.S. Humvees at dawn in the city of Samarra, 60 miles north of the capital, witnesses said, and U.S. helicopters responded with rockets at insurgent positions. At least two people were killed and 16 injured during the fighting, said Ahmed Jadou'a, an official at Samarra Hospital. Two houses were also destroyed.
In southern Iraq, British troops backed by tanks fought with al-Sadr militiamen who seized four police stations on the outskirts of Amarah. The troops secured the main police station, said Maj. Ian Clooney, a British military spokesman. It was not clear if they recaptured the others.
In Nasiriyah, assailants attacked Italian troops early Friday with automatic weapons and targeted a police station, an Italian military spokesman said. Eight Iraqis, including five militants, were killed, and 13 were wounded, according to Abdul Khuder al-Tahir, a senior Interior Ministry official. There were no coalition casualties, the Italian spokesman said.
Insurgents also attacked a Romanian patrol outside Nasiriyah with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, said Gelaledin Nezir, the Romanian Defense Ministry spokesman. No injuries were reported.
Assailants also attacked a police station and City Hall in the southern city of Basra, wounding three police and five civilians, police and hospital officials said.
Violence in Basra since Thursday killed five al-Sadr fighters, said As'ad al-Basri, an al-Sadr official in the city.
Also Friday, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said four Lebanese truck drivers had been taken hostage in Iraq as they drove from Baghdad to Ramadi.