Coalition forces battled militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in several Iraqi cities Friday, saying they killed about 300 militants in Najaf over two days of fighting. Battles in other Shiite areas of the country have killed dozens more, according to Iraqi authorities.
Two U.S. Marines and an American soldier were killed in Najaf on Thursday, and 12 troops were wounded, the military said. Fifteen U.S. soldiers were wounded in Baghdad.
In Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, U.S. helicopters on Friday attacked militants hiding in a cemetery near the Imam Ali Shrine in the old city at Najaf's center, where smoke could be seen rising.
The fighting began Thursday in Najaf and has since spread to other Shiite areas across the country, as the truce that marked an end to a similar rebellion two months ago appeared to have been shattered.
Al-Sadr blamed the United States for the violence in Iraq in a sermon read on his behalf Friday in the Kufa Mosque close to Najaf.
The interim government had called America "our partner," he said. "I say America is our enemy and the enemy of the people, and we will not accept its partnership."
In other developments:
The death toll the past two days among the anti-coalition fighters was among the largest in a single continuing engagement since the end of the war to oust Saddam Hussein last year.
"I blame the occupier for all the attacks going on in Iraq, such as the attacks on the churches and the kidnappings," al Sadr said in the sermon read by an aide, Sheik Jaber al-Khafaji. "America is the greatest of Satans."
Nevertheless, al-Sadr's aides called Friday for a return to the truce. They asked for the United Nations and Iraq's interim government to stop the violence.
"From our side we did not want to escalate the situation, because the situation in Najaf affects that of other Shiite areas," Mahmoud al-Sudani, a spokesman of al-Sadr in Baghdad, told reporters. "But the actions of the American troops have enraged the sons of these cities."
In the Najaf cemetery, gunfire and explosions rang out as U.S. soldiers and Iraqi policemen advanced toward the area, witnesses said. The streets were otherwise deserted and shops were closed.
"The area near the (Imam Ali Shrine) is being subjected to a war," said Ahmed al-Shaibany, an official with al-Sadr's office in Najaf. "Najaf is being subjected to ... total destruction.
"We call on the Islamic world and the civilized world to save the city."
The U.S. military has accused the militants of hiding in the shrine compound to avoid retaliation by U.S. forces. It had no comment on Friday's clashes.
"We estimate we've killed 300 anti-Iraqi forces in the past two days of fighting," said Capt. Carrie Batson, a Marine spokeswoman.
At least 921 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the Defense Department.