Iraqi officials claimed Monday that at least 200 militants were killed in a fierce battle between U.S.-backed Iraqi troops and a religious cult allegedly plotting to kill pilgrims at a major Shiite Muslim religious festival, while bombings and mortar attacks targeting Shiites elsewhere killed at least 15 people.
Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said the Iraqi troops killed 200 terrorists, wounded 60 and captured 120 in the operation, lowering previous counts based on what he said were the most recent figures he had received.
CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan reports U.S. military sources say operations around Najaf were still ongoing Monday, but the major combat involving American tanks, fighter jets and helicopter gun ships had slowed.
Iraqi security forces continued frisking suspects, including several men forced to lie down on a road between a bus and a motorcycle, while others patrolled elsewhere on the battlefield.
A U.S. helicopter crashed during the fight, killing two American soldiers whose bodies were recovered, the military said. The statement did not give any information on why the aircraft crashed — the second U.S. military helicopter to do down in eight days.
This was the first major fight for Iraq security forces in Najaf since they took over control there from the U.S. in December, but Logan says the heavy American involvement shows how reliant the Iraqis still are on U.S. Military backup.
An Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said the raid on Sunday was targeting a group called the Jund al-Samaa, or Soldiers of Heaven, and the group's leader and foreign fighters were among those killed.
Al-Dabbagh said the fighting had continued until early Monday morning, but U.S. and Iraqi forces still had the area surrounded and had seized heavy machine guns, ammunition and other weapons.
CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick says it's unclear exactly which groups the militants belonged to; whether they were mostly Sunni or Shiite militia members, or if they were from a group called Army of Heaven, known to recruit from both sects.
The figures could not be independently confirmed. The Iraqi Defense Ministry, which oversees the army, said it could not yet give a casualty toll because sporadic fighting was ongoing.
Attacks, meanwhile, struck Shiite targets in the Baghdad area as the Islamic sect marks Ashoura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar commemorating the 7th century death of Imam Hussein. The celebration culminates Tuesday in huge public processions in Najaf, Karbala and other Shiite cities.
In other developments:Two car bombs exploded within a half hour in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing 11 people and wounding 34, police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qader said. Three ethnic groups — Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen — are in a bitter struggle for control of that oil-rich area. In addition to confirming the two Americans killed in the helicopter crash near Najaf, the U.S. command announced three combat deaths from Saturday - one Marine in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar province and two Army soldiers in the Baghdad area.Mortar rounds rained down on a Shiite neighborhood in the Sunni-dominated town of Jurf al-Sakhar, 40 miles south of Baghdad, Monday morning, police spokesman Capt. Muthanna Khalid said. He said 10 were killed, including three children and four women, and five other people were wounded.A parked car bomb struck a bus carrying Shiites to a holy shrine in northern Baghdad Monday, killing at least four people and wounding six, police said. The blast occurred when a small car parked nearby exploded as pilgrims were boarding the bus on Palestine Street. The bus, which was completely burned out, had been heading to Kazimiyah, which is home to the most important Shiite mosque in the capital.A bomb hidden under a concrete barrier exploded as workers were paving a street in an intersection in a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Baghdad, killing one worker and wounding two others, police said.Iran's ambassador to Baghdad has outlined a plan to greatly increase his country's economic and military ties to the Iraqi government, according to a report by the New York Times. The plan, announced on Sunday, comes as the U.S. grows increasingly impatient with what Bush administration officials call Tehran's "meddling" in Iraq. The Times report says Iran's plans include increased economic ties, and offering to take over the responsibilities of reconstruction and security from the Americans.
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