Jan 28, 2007
Iraqi and U.S. forces have killed more than 250 insurgents in fierce battles over control of the Shiite holy city of Najaf, an interior ministry official tells CNN. The official said hundreds of gunmen attacked with the aim of killing Shia clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani..
NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- A battle between U.S.-backed Iraqi troops and insurgents raged into Monday morning after Iraqi officials said they foiled a plot to attack pilgrims and kill leading clerics in the Shiite Muslim holy city.
Iraqi interior and defense ministry officials told CNN an estimated 250 to 300 gunmen had been killed in the fight north of Najaf.
They were part of a force of 400 to 600 insurgents who planned a massive siege of Najaf on Tuesday. Tuesday is the culmination of the Shiite holy period of Ashura when Shiites mark the 7th-century martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson.
Iraqi officials said insurgents planned to seize control of the city and the surrounding province and kill top Shiite religious figures -- including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite leader.
At least nine Iraqis and two Americans were killed in the battle, which was "90 percent over" early Monday, Najaf police Col. Ali Jraiwi told the state television network al-Iraqia.
Jraiwi said the Iraqis were tipped off that insurgents were gathering near the town of Zarqa, about six miles (10 km) north of Najaf.
He said they moved south among convoys of Shiite pilgrims headed to Najaf to observe Ashura.
He said captured fighters told Iraqi authorities they planned to attack senior clerics and the Imam Ali Shrine at the heart of the city.
Insurgents used small arms, mortars and rockets against Iraqi soldiers and police backed by U.S. troops and aircraft, according to Jraiwi.
A U.S. military helicopter went down during the battle Sunday afternoon, killing two soldiers aboard, the U.S. command in Baghdad said.
The military said the cause of the crash is still under investigation, but Iraqi officials said the chopper was shot down by insurgents.
Al-Sistani pushed for early elections after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled former leader Saddam Hussein in 2003. He urged his followers in the majority-Shiite country to turn out and vote.
During the years of attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents, al-Sistani has been seen as a moderate who speaks against violent reprisals.
His killing "would really plunge Iraq and possibly the rest of the region into a bloodbath," said Vali Nasr, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and author of "The Shia Revival," a recent book on the rise of the Shiites.
"Ayatollah Sistani is the most revered and the most followed Shiite spiritual leader," Nasr told CNN. "He is like the Shiite pope.
"Shiites follow him across the Middle East in religious affairs, and his death at the hands of the insurgents would be of enormous symbolic value."
The battle began about 5:30 a.m. Sunday (9:30 p.m. Saturday ET). Iraqi police and troops dispatched to go after the insurgents were overwhelmed by the size of the insurgent force, which held well-fortified positions, an interior ministry official said.
The Iraqi forces withdrew after six police were killed and 19 others were wounded, including four Iraqi soldiers and Najaf's police chief, the official said. The Iraqi commanders then called for U.S. military support, the official said.
Iraqi police based their estimate of insurgent losses on the type of artillery used in the battle and the number of insurgents involved in the fighting, the official said.
Ashura observances had been banned under Hussein. The holiday had been marred by sectarian killings since resuming after Hussein's 2003 ouster, with 180 killed in bombings that targeted pilgrims in Baghdad and Karbala in 2004.
Meanwhile, Iraqi schoolgirls taking their midterm exams were the target of a mortar attack Sunday morning that killed five of the students and wounded 21, an Iraqi interior ministry official said.
Insurgents fired at least three mortar rounds at the al-Khulood girls secondary school in western Baghdad, the official said.
The girls who were killed were between the ages of 12 and 14 years.
Those injured included students, employees and workers at the school in the mainly Sunni Adil neighborhood, which is under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi army, the official said.
Video from the scene showed blood spread across stone steps. The windows of classrooms were shattered.
A pupil aged around 15 named Ban Ismet told Reuters at Nuaaman Hospital that she was in the yard when the blasts hit and she was wounded in the legs: "I couldn't see much but what I saw was my friend Maha who was lying beside me on the ground.
"The shrapnel hit her in the eyes and there was blood all over her face. ... She was dead."
Bombs, mortar rounds and bullets killed and wounded scores of people Sunday throughout Iraq, Iraqi officials said.
Two mortar rounds hit a busy area near a medical clinic near Hilla, south of Baghdad, killing 10 people, including six women and three children, a Hilla police official told CNN.
At least two car bombs exploded in separate areas of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Sunday, killing 16 people and wounding 27 others, police told CNN.
In Baghdad, four bombs in different parts of the city killed 15 people and wounded more than 60.
Gunmen ambushed and killed an Industry Ministry adviser and his daughter, also a ministry official, an Interior Ministry official said. The gunmen also shot and killed their driver and bodyguard.
Baghdad police Sunday found 39 bodies dumped in the streets of Baghdad.