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Fighting Flares In Najaf

Explosions and gunfire shook Najaf on Monday amid fierce battles between U.S. forces and Shiite militants, who remained in control of a revered shrine as negotiations dragged on for its handover to religious authorities.

Four over an hour Monday, militants in the holy city of Najaf fired mortars at U.S. troops, who responded with artillery, residents said.

Late Sunday, U.S. warplanes and helicopters attacked positions in the Old City for the second night, witnesses said. Militant leaders said the Imam Ali Shrine compound's outer walls were damaged in the attacks. The U.S. military said it had fired on sites south of the shrine, from which militants were shooting, and did not hit the compound wall.

Sunday's clashes in Najaf appeared more intense than in recent days as U.S. forces sealed off the Old City. But Iraqi government officials counseled patience, saying they intended to resolve the crisis without raiding the shrine, one of Shia Islam's holiest sites.

"The government will leave no stone unturned to reach a peaceful settlement," Iraqi National Security adviser Mouaffaq al-Rubaie told The Associated Press. "It has no intention or interest in killing more people or having even the most trivial damage to the shrine. We have a vested interest in a peaceful settlement."

In other recent developments:

  • In the southern city of Nasiriyah, U.S. journalist Micah Garen said after his release from more a week in captivity that he hoped to stay in Iraq to continue working on a documentary project he'd started about the looting of archaeological sites. "This experience hasn't made me want to leave at all," Garen said late Sunday in an interview with Associated Press Television News. He also thanked radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for helping free him from his captors.
  • In the Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency, four U.S. Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed in separate incidents, the military announced Sunday. One Marine was killed in action Saturday and two others died Saturday of wounds received while conducting "security and stability operations" in the province, the military said. Another Marine was killed Saturday when his Humvee flipped after running into a tank, the military said.
  • A roadside bomb attack Sunday targeting a U.S. military convoy outside the northern city of Mosul killed one U.S. soldier assigned to Task Force Olympia and wounded another, the military said. The injured soldier was in stable condition. Two Iraqi children also were injured in the blast, said Dr. Mohammed Ahmed of al-Jumhuri hospital.

    Senior government officials said last week an Iraqi force was preparing to raid the shrine within hours to expel the militants loyal to al-Sadr, but interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi quickly backed off that threat.

    Such an operation would anger Shiites across the country and could turn them against the new government as it tries to gain legitimacy and tackle a 16-month-old insurgency.

    In Najaf, U.S. tanks rumbled down deserted streets Sunday, while sporadic gunfire filled the air. The roads leading to the shrine were muddied and filled with chunks of concrete ripped from the streets. Black smoke trailed from a building, as the clatter of automatic gunfire rang out.

    In the afternoon a fierce battle between the military and al-Sadr's militants broke out when insurgents launched a mortar barrage at U.S. troops, witnesses said. Calm returned to the city after about half an hour.

    Early Sunday, U.S. warplanes bombed the Old City and the sounds of shelling could be heard in the streets, witnesses said. The U.S. military could not confirm the bombing.

    At least three people were killed and 18 injured during overnight fighting, said Tawfiq Mohammed of Najaf General Hospital.

    Fighting in the nearby city of Kufa on Saturday killed 40 militants, according to the Interior Ministry. However, Mahmoud al-Soudani, an al-Sadr aide, called the claim "government propaganda" and said only one militant had been killed.

    As of Friday, 949 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

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