NAJAF, Iraq - Heavy clashes erupted in this holy city yesterday between Iraqi and U.S. forces and followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, shattering a two-month cease-fire and inciting his militia to rise up in three other cities.
The battles in Najaf killed two U.S. troops, five Iraqi police officers, several civilians and at least a dozen al-Sadr militants. Amid the fighting, the cleric put out a call to arms, urging his supporters to "confront this infidel enemy."
The clashes marked the fiercest fighting in southern Iraq since May, when U.S. troops began negotiating an end to a standoff with al-Sadr that had crippled the cities of Najaf and Kufa and fueled unrest and anti-American sentiments among the nation's large Shiite Muslim population.
Yesterday's violence came on the heels of insurgent attacks Wednesday in the northern city of Mosul that left 22 people dead. The renewed street battles - the worst since the interim Iraqi government took power June 28 - present a major security challenge to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a tough-talking Shiite leader whose political future depends upon his ability to bring peace to his country.
American casualties yesterday included a soldier with the 13th Corps Support Command, who was killed when his Army convoy was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire outside Najaf, and a Marine who died in fighting in the city. Three Marines were wounded.
The injured crew of a UH-1 Huey helicopter downed by insurgent fire in Najaf was rescued, military officials said. Among the Iraqi dead was an ambulance driver killed by a mortar shell that hit his vehicle.
U.S. military officials said al-Sadr's Mahdi Army started the fighting early yesterday with two attacks on Najaf's main police station. After the second attack, Iraqi police requested help from American forces.
By late morning, there were attacks on the governor's office and several checkpoints. After al-Sadr's forces launched a barrage of mortar shells at U.S. and Iraqi positions, the Americans said, a U.S. F-15 jet dropped two satellite-guided bombs on a cemetery where militia members had retreated.
Representatives from al-Sadr's office in Najaf accused U.S. forces of breaking the cease-fire first by swarming around the cleric's house earlier this week.
"From this aggression it is obvious that America did not come to Iraq except to fight Islam and the Muslims," a statement released by al-Sadr's office in Najaf said. "We appeal to all the believers and the Mahdi Army in particular to confront this infidel enemy."
In outbreaks similar to those this spring, al-Sadr's followers around the country promptly obeyed his call to arms. Assailants and militiamen wounded 15 American troops in four separate attacks in Baghdad, the U.S. command said today. Mosque loudspeakers in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City announced the end of the truce and urged citizens to get ready to fight.
"We will not allow the Americans to enter our city," said Abu Mohammed Asadi, a Mahdi Army member, patrolling the streets yesterday afternoon.
Militia members also attacked British troops in the southern city of Basra, where one al-Sadr representative called for a holy war, and in Amarah, southwest of Baghdad, where militants fired at a government building.
After nightfall, several spokesmen for al-Sadr called for the restoration of the truce, wire services reported. But fighting continued last night in Najaf, and U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces were attempting to surround al-Sadr's militia in a cemetery near a shrine.
In other violence, a suicide bomber struck a police station in Mahawil, near the town of Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad. Six people reportedly were killed in the blast. About two dozen people were injured.
During an emergency meeting yesterday with his security advisers and U.S. military officials, Allawi considered the option of arresting al-Sadr, but no decision was announced. An Iraqi court issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr last year in connection with the killing of a rival cleric. But U.S. efforts to execute the warrant in the spring triggered widespread uprisings.
Iraqi officials said yesterday that they were not interested in trying to make deals with al-Sadr's forces.
"We are not going to negotiate," said Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib at a Baghdad news conference. "We are going to fight this militia. We have enough power and strength to kick those people out."
Asked if he had a message for al-Sadr, al-Naqib replied, "Don't kill yourself."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.