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Battle Rages Outside Shiite Holy City

U.S.-backed Iraqi troops on Sunday attacked insurgents allegedly plotting to kill pilgrims at a major Shiite Muslim religious festival, and Iraqi officials estimated some 250 militants died in the daylong battle near Najaf. A U.S. helicopter crashed during the fight, killing two American soldiers.

Authorities said Iraqi soldiers supported by U.S. aircraft fought all day with a large group of insurgents in the Zaraq area, about 12 miles northeast of the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Col. Ali Nomas, spokesman for Iraqi security forces in Najaf, said more than 250 corpses had been found. Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi also spoke of 250 dead but said an exact number would not be released until Monday. He said 10 gunmen had been captured, including one Sudanese.

Provincial Gov. Assad Sultan Abu Kilel said the assault was launched because the insurgents planned to attack Shiite pilgrims and clerics during ceremonies marking 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 Karbala and other Shiite cities.

Officials were unclear about the religious affiliation of the militants. Although Sunni Arabs have been the main force behind insurgent groups, there are a number of Shiite militant and splinter groups that have clashed from time to time with the government.

Iraqi soldiers attacked at dawn and militants hiding in orchards fought back with automatic weapons, sniper rifles and rockets, the governor said. He said the insurgents were members of a previously unknown group called the Army of Heaven.

"They are well-equipped and they even have anti-aircraft missiles," the governor said. "They are backed by some locals" loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Abu Kilel said two Iraqi policemen were killed and 15 wounded, but there was no word on other Iraqi government casualties.

A U.S. statement said the American helicopter went down while "conducting operations to assist Iraqi Security Forces" in the attack. It said two crew members died and their bodies were recovered. The statement did not give any information on why the aircraft crashed.

It was the second U.S. military helicopter to do down in eight days. Twelve U.S. soldiers died Jan. 20 when a Black Hawk crashed northeast of Baghdad. The Army says it is investigating the cause, but a Pentagon official has said debris indicated it was downed by a missile.

In other developments:

  • The U.S. command reported that three other American military personnel were killed Saturday — one Marine in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar province and two Army soldiers in the Baghdad area.
  • Mortar shells rained down Sunday on a girls' secondary school in a mostly Sunni area of western Baghdad, killing five pupils and wounding 20, witnesses and police said.
  • Three bombings struck Shiite districts in Baghdad, killing at least seven people and wounding 61, police said.
  • The two car bombs in Kirkuk exploded within 30 minutes of each other in different parts of the city, 180 miles north of Baghdad. The first blast was at a car dealership, killing six people and wounding 19, said Qader, the police general said. The second went off at a popular restaurant, killing five and injuring 15, he said.
  • The mayor of Baqouba and 1,500 policemen in Diyala province have been fired in a bid to end the raging violence in the region northeast of Baghdad, the provincial police chief said Sunday.
  • Police in Baghdad said they found 39 bullet-riddled bodies throughout the city Sunday, apparent victims of sectarian death squads. Ten more bodies were recovered floating down the Tigris River 25 miles south of the capital.
  • U.S. troops captured 21 suspected terrorists including an al Qaeda courier in a series of raids in Baghdad and Sunni areas north and west of the capital, the U.S. command said. Three of the suspects were believed to have close ties to the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq, the military said.
  • Iraq's deputy prime minister on Sunday said Iran and the United States were using Iraq as a "zone of conflict and competition" and jeopardizing efforts to stabilize the country. Barham Saleh, a Kurd who has ties with both Tehran and Washington, accused the two countries of stepping on Iraq's sovereignty as they jockeyed for advantage. "The new Iraq is one that hopes to be at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbors," he said from his Green Zone office compound. "And that definitely requires noninterference in our [domestic] affairs."
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