KARBALA, Iraq - U.S. soldiers battled insurgents led by a rebel Shiite cleric yesterday, killing scores of Iraqis in a continuing offensive south of Baghdad.
The Americans pursued Muqtada al-Sadr's militia forces in the warrens and alleyways of two of the holiest Shiite cities, Karbala and Najaf, where the rebels have barricaded themselves for more than a month.
Militiamen fired rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s at more than 100 soldiers, who moved low along walls and inched down a mile-long stretch of road, returning fire as roadside bombs exploded near them.
The soldiers killed at least 25 insurgents here, 12 in Najaf and at least 41 in two battles around Kufa. There were no U.S. casualties reported yesterday, but a Pole and an Algerian working for a state-run Polish television network were killed by gunmen as they drove through the town of Mahmudiya on the road from Baghdad to Najaf. A Polish cameraman was wounded.
The firefights were the most intense since the U.S. military started an operation here Tuesday night to crush al-Sadr's thousands-strong militia, called the Mahdi Army. The stiff resistance seems to indicate that many of the militiamen are prepared to fight to the death.
More than 2,500 U.S. soldiers have surrounded Najaf, where al-Sadr lives, but have refrained from a full-scale invasion because its golden-domed central shrine is one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites.
On Thursday, U.S. soldiers took over the governor's mansion on the city's outskirts and installed a new governor. Powerful Shiite politicians and religious leaders have called for al-Sadr to withdraw his militia.
Lt. Col. Gary Bishop said the soldiers would continue patrols and raids until they drive the Mahdi Army from the city. He said the goal is to put Iraqi security forces back in charge of Karbala and limit al-Sadr's influence to Najaf, where, it is hoped, senior clerics will deal with him.
The fighting in Karbala took place in a neighborhood less than a mile southwest of two of the holiest places of pilgrimage for Shiite Muslims, the Shrine of Hussein and the similarly ornate Shrine of Abbas.
The American military has been careful not to encroach on the area of the shrines for fear of inflaming Shiites across the country. Instead, commanders here have been sending waves of patrols through the troublesome neighborhood to draw fire from militiamen and then kill them.
"I think they had enough today," Capt. Robert Adcock said of the insurgents as he chewed on a cigar after the battle yesterday. "They may get ready and go back tonight. But right now they've had enough."
Soldiers first attacked the neighborhood early Wednesday morning, raiding the former Baath Party headquarters and blowing up the old governor's building, but insurgents have resisted each incursion.
By yesterday morning, the fighters had placed trunks of palm trees and large boulders across the main avenue. A dozen Bradley fighting vehicles and two armored personnel carriers rolled around the obstacles as more than a hundred soldiers made their way on foot along the low-slung buildings on either side.
At one point, a sniper blew away the head of an insurgent looking around the corner of an alley. A rocket-propelled grenade whistled past the faces of more than a dozen soldiers crouched against a wall. At least one Bradley fighting vehicle took a direct hit from the same type of projectile, though no one inside was injured.
One soldier fainted from heat exhaustion, and two were dragged into Bradleys and given water before they collapsed. Some soldiers found a hose by a house and doused each other after taking off their helmets.
Roadside bombs exploded along the length of the street. Soldiers sprinted past some that had not been detonated. The Bradleys fired 25 mm cannons at figures darting down alleys, even as insurgents poked their AK-47s around corners and sprayed the area.
By the time the last bullet was fired, bodies lay strewn across the roads. One Iraqi crouching in a bush had been killed by shrapnel from three grenades. In the middle of the street, a man in a beige robe writhed in a pool of blood for half an hour before falling still.