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Fierce fighting continues in Najaf
US helicopter gunships today fired on militia loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf after a two-month truce between the sides collapsed.
The second day of fierce fighting in the holy city came as clashes between US troops and insurgents broke out in Samarra, north of Baghdad, where hospital officials said two people had been killed.
Elsewhere, Italian soldiers exchanged automatic weapons fire with assailants who attacked their positions and a police station in Nasiriya, an Italian military spokesman said.
The al-Jazeera television channel reported that four Iraqis had been killed in the clashes. A military spokesman said the city was now calm.
A source at Beirut's foreign ministry, cited by Reuters, today said that four Lebanese drivers were taken hostage in Iraq yesterday.
More than 60 foreigners - many of them truck drivers - have been taken hostage since the war was officially declared over last year, with militants using them to demand the withdrawal of troops and foreign companies. Although most of the hostages have been freed, some have been killed.
The heavy fighting in Najaf will be a cause of increasing concern to the commanders of US-led forces in Iraq.
Mr Sadr yesterday called for a national uprising against US forces, although conflicting reports said he had called for the truce to be restored.
Fighting in the area had calmed since reaching its fiercest levels two months ago, but flared again yesterday after militia attacked an Iraqi police station, sparking an intervention by US marines.
US helicopters today attacked militants hiding in a cemetery near the Imam Ali shrine in the old city at Najaf's centre, where clouds of smoke were seen rising.
Gunfire and explosions were heard as US soldiers and Iraqi policemen advanced toward the area, according to witnesses. The streets were otherwise deserted, and shops were closed.
Since yesterday, at least 10 people have been killed and 40 injured, according to Hussein Hadi, of Najaf general hospital. There were reports that a US soldier was killed yesterday, and the US military said it had detained dozens of people, many of whom had been wounded in the fighting.
Ahmed al-Shaibany, an official with Mr Sadr's office in Najaf, today described the clashes as fierce. "The area near the [Imam Ali shrine] is being subjected to a war," he said. "Najaf is being subjected to ... total destruction. We call on the Islamic world and the civilised world to save the city."
Commentators have accused Mr Sadr of using the shrine - one of the most revered in the Muslim world - to his own advantage, knowing any damage to it would cause widespread anger.
In Samarra, 100km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, guerrillas attacked a convoy of ten US Humvees at dawn, witnesses said. US helicopters fired rockets at insurgent positions, and the US convoy pulled out of the city.
Ahmed Jadou'a, an official at Samarra hospital, said that at least two people had been killed and 16 injured. Two houses were also destroyed.
· Iraq's most revered Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was today travelling to London, where he is expected to receive treatment for a heart condition.
The ayatollah's spokesman, Sheik Hamed Khafaf, said he had "suffered a health crisis related to his heart a few days ago" and that specialist doctors were treating him. The cleric, who is 73, needs special treatment, Sheik Khafaf said, refusing to elaborate further.
Ayatollah Sistani has great political influence in Iraq because he is the leading religious figure among the country's Shia Muslim majority.
Arab media have been giving extensive coverage to the fighting in Najaf from the viewpoint of those inside the city.
Correspondents from the main Arab satellite channels have been reporting from Najaf and the stations have carried live interviews from spokesmen for Moqtada Sadr.
However, little coverage has been given to the American view of the fighting.
The two most watched Arab satellite news channels, al- Jazeera and al-Arabiya, have been leading with the fighting in Najaf. Both have shown vivid footage of the violence.
Al-Arabiya's correspondent in Najaf talked of the city being under siege and semi-deserted, with all roads closed and no-one allowed to enter or leave.
As well as its coverage of the fighting, al-Jazeera broadcast an interview with one of Mr Sadr's representatives in Baghdad.
The spokesman, Sheikh Mahmoud al-Sudani, put the blame for the outbreak of fighting on the Americans and the Iraqi authorities.
"It seems that this military escalation by the US forces has been studied and well planned," he said. "It is intended to storm the holy city of Najaf.
"We did not wish for this escalation. The US forces and the governor of Najaf are wholly responsible for it."
As on the first day of the fighting, al-Jazeera left the impact of what the Shia leader's supporters said unchallenged by any comment from the US military or Iraqi government.
The station's correspondent in Najaf also put the blame for the fighting on the Americans, saying they had broken the ceasefire by resuming patrols in the city.
The effect of the fighting on civilians in Najaf has been highlighted in coverage by Arab TV.
One station, Lebanon's Hezbollah-backed al-Manar - which is now watched across the Arab world - showed people in Najaf describing how they had been caught up in the violence.
One spoke about his family: "A group from our family were going on an errand. When they came back, there was shelling and another car hit them... One man died."
Another - a school guard - told how the fighting had come to his workplace: "A shell fell at the entrance to the guard room. There are no Mehdi Army elements in our area. What brought the war to us?"
The fighting in Najaf has been portrayed on Arab satellite stations as another conflict in Iraq in which ordinary Iraqis are the victims.
The blame is not directly ascribed to any side, but the inference is once again of American insensitivity to the wishes and well-being of the Iraqi people.
That is a message that may well play to Mr Sadr's advantage, both in Iraq and in the wider Arab world.
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. forces backed by helicopter gunships battled militia loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Najaf on Friday, fueling fears of a second Shi'ite uprising.
British and Italian troops also fought members of Sadr's militia, known as the Mehdi Army, across Shi'ite-dominated southern Iraq -- in Basra, Amara and Nassiriya -- while fighting raged in Sadr City, a Shi'ite district 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.
Two U.S. marines were killed in Najaf on Thursday, the U.S. military said. The Health Ministry said one person was killed in Najaf and 25 injured, but local officials said dozens died in 48 hours of heavy fighting.
The flare-up of tension with radical members of Iraq's majority community, less than three months after Shi'ite militants last rose up across the south, is a severe headache for Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's fledgling government.
But Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari was upbeat. "We have every confidence in our new government, our security forces and our allies to contain this conflict." But, he said, "we need the continued support and engagement of our allies."
In the previous uprising, in April and May, hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of U.S. troops were killed.
Yet Sadr, a young cleric with an ardent following among poor, disaffected youths, appeared keen to stop the fighting. Via a spokesman in Baghdad, he called for a resumption of a truce struck in June to end the previous bout of unrest.
"We have no objections to entering negotiations to solve this crisis," Sadr's spokesman in Baghdad, 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, left Iraq on Friday, traveling to London via Lebanon 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. Fighting there on Thursday was the fiercest since the uprising in April and May.
U.S. Marines recently replaced the U.S. 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 U.S. helicopter as it was trying to evacuate a wounded soldier on Thursday. No one was killed, but the pilots were wounded. The U.S. military estimated as many as 20 militiamen were killed in the day's fighting.
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.
On a street leading from Najaf to the nearby town of Kufa, where Sadr often preaches on Fridays, U.S. tanks fired on hotels suspected of being used by militiamen to snipe at U.S. forces.
Fighting also flared near Najaf's shrines, some of the holiest in Shi'ite Islam, and some alleged that gunfire had damaged the dome of the Imam Ali shrine. Most Iraqi Shi'ites react with outrage when clashes erupt near the sacred sites.
As well as trying to control the Shi'ite threat, Allawi is struggling to contain Iraq's 15-month Sunni-led insurgency.
As part of that effort, the U.S. military launched operation Cajun Mousetrap around the city of Samarra, 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, where guerrillas have carried out a series of bomb attacks on U.S. patrols and convoys in recent weeks.
At least three suspected insurgents were killed in overnight fighting near the town, said Major Neal O'Brien, a spokesman for U.S. forces in the area, and nine suspects were detained.
Last month, a U.S. general said he feared Samarra could become like Falluja, the rebellious city west of Baghdad, if the brewing insurgency there were not quickly tamped down.
Besides Najaf, the Mehdi Army fired assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at Italian troops in Nassiriya, 375 km (235 miles) south of Baghdad.
A spokesman for Italy's 2,700-strong force in Iraq said there were a dozen attacks on patrols overnight, a Iraqi security force barracks was attacked and a power plant bombarded by mortars. Fighting continued in Nassiriya on Friday.
In Baghdad, the U.S. military said 16 soldiers were wounded in four attacks on Thursday in Sadr City as U.S. forces tried to restore order in the area, from where Sadr draws much support.
The U.S. military's chief partner in Iraq, Britain, also came under attack when militiamen fired a mortar at a garrison in the southern city of Basra, wounding one soldier.
Basra has largely been calm since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein last year, but Sadr has a large following in the city and his followers have led occasional outbreaks of violence.
US planes have pounded the central Iraqi city of Najaf as intense clashes rage on between occupation troops and Shia Muslim leader Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in the worst fighting since a truce was agreed upon in June.
Nearly 50 people were killed and more than 130 wounded on Friday as the unrest fanned out across central and southern Iraq, pitting al-Sadr loyalists against British troops in Basra, Italian troops in Nasiriya and against US troops in Shia areas of Baghdad.
Columns of thick black smoke could be seen rising up from Najaf, as residents stayed at home with their doors bolted and Mahdi Army fighters took control over the streets.
Sixteen people were killed including a US soldier, and more than 100 wounded in the city, reported our correspondent.
US planes fired rockets over Nasiriya, an al-Sadr stronghold which saw major fighting during the Mahdi Army's first standoff with the occupation troops.
One ambulance was set alight and burnt-out civilian vehicles littered the deserted streets, said an AFP correspondent.
Italian troops are based on one side of the city, with Mahdi Army fighters deployed on the other side of the Euphrates river.
Only the sound of sporadic gunfire could be heard early on Friday.
Power lines were also cut.
At 4:00am (0000 GMT) four fighters attacked a police station in the eastern part of the city. No casualties were reported in the incident.
In Baghdad, at least 26 people were killed and 90 wounded in fighting pitting US occupation troops and Iraqi security forces against Mahdi Army fighters in their stronghold of Sadr City, medics said Friday.
One mortar round landed near the Ashtar Sheraton and Palestine Meridien hotels, where a large number of journalists and foreign businessmen were residing, reported Aljazeera's correspondent.
The Sadr General Hospital said 18 bodies had been brought in and in addition to 73 injured people, including two women and four children.
In the Al-Shuader hospital, eight people were reported killed and 17 wounded. Two other hospitals reported 10 wounded between them.
Two civilians were killed and 13 wounded as US occupation forces, backed by airpower, fought resistance fighters in Samarra, north of Baghdad, medics said Friday.
The fighting was concentrated at the al-Bonisan and al-Jibairiya districts, reported our correspondent.
Three children were among the wounded, said a doctor at the
city's main hospital.
Fighting began late on Thursday near a bridge over the Tigris, said police colonel Abd al-Haq Ismail.
An AFP correspondent said US planes fired 11 rockets in the area.
In the southern city of Nasiriya, Italian forces clashed with Shia fighters in the early on Friday and tensions were still high, an Italian military spokesman said.
In more than a dozen attacks that began shortly after midnight (2000 GMT Thursday), Mahdi Army fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and light arms at Italian patrols, key installations such as a power plant and an Iraqi police base, the Italian army said.
"It has been an extremely tense night and we are maintaining maximum alert," said Captain Ettore Sarli, chief spokesman for Italian occupation forces in Nasiriya.
"An Italian task force has control of the centre of Nasiriya and its bridges, and we are seeking mediation with the militia via the governor of the city," he said.
The Mahdi Army claimed to have destroyed at least four Italian armoured trucks in the fighting. Sarli confirmed various attacks on Italian patrols, but said there was no indication so far that four military vehicles had been destroyed.
Al-Sadr's army also said to have attacked British forces in the southern city of Amara, but that claim too could not be independently confirmed.
The clashes come after a two-month uprising by al-Sadr's followers in April and May which led to bloodshed across southern Iraq. A tentative truce was struck in June, but now appears to have broken down.
Aljazeera + Agencies