BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. forces engaged militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for a sixth day in Najaf, as the U.S. military used loudspeakers yesterday to appeal to entrenched guerrillas to lay down their weapons and to urge residents to stay away from the fighting.
In an ancient cemetery not far from the headquarters of al-Sadr in Najaf, U.S. troops have confronted the guerrillas in battles that have brought them to the edges of some of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, including the shrine of Imam Ali, creating serious political and social risks for the Americans and the new government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Al-Sadr, who fiercely opposes the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, has inspired a band of fighters and militias in Najaf, the Shiite slum of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad, and in other Shiite towns, in an uprising that surged in April and erupted again in recent days.
Al-Sadr controls the shrine in Najaf, not far from the cemetery where the heaviest fighting has occurred. Any serious damage to the gold-domed structure or other holy sites would likely enrage Shiites, even those who have largely stayed on the sidelines.
A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad said yesterday that about 360 insurgents died in Najaf in the first four days of the battle, although al-Sadr's militia insists that the toll has been far lower.
Al-Sadr has said that he would resist the American presence in Iraq "until my last drop of blood." His fighters, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and assault weapons, are confronting armored combat vehicles and heavy weapons of the U.S. forces.
American forces clashed with guerrillas overnight, and Najaf residents said U.S. tanks entered the cemetery area early yesterday, forging the path for a convoy of Humvees that toured the city's streets, urging people through loudspeakers to leave the city center and nearby town of Kufa and sending a warning to fighters.
"People should cooperate with the Iraqi police and national guard," the message blared. "There will be no truce and no negotiations with the corrupt armed militias. We ask you to evacuate the city center and Kufa.
"Leave the city in peace or you will die," the message said, naming districts to be evacuated, affecting about 75 percent of the city.
After the announcement, witnesses said they saw streams of cars heading out of the city. A huge fire billowed from the direction of the city center. The crack of sporadic gunfire rang out.
Ahmad Shaibani, an aide to al-Sadr, appealed for negotiations in a statement broadcast yesterday on the Al-Arabiya television network.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, 928 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 720 U.S. soldiers have died.
Army Spc. Joshua I. Bunch, 23, Hattiesburg, Miss.; died Friday in Baghdad when small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades struck his vehicle; assigned to the 91st Engineer Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division; Fort Hood, Texas.
Marine Sgt. Yadir G. Reynoso, 27, Wapato, Wash.; killed Thursday in Najaf province; assigned to Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, I Marine Expeditionary Force; Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Marine Sgt. Moses D. Rocha, 33, Roswell, N.M.; died Thursday of injuries from an attack in Najaf; assigned to Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, I Marine Expeditionary Force; Camp Pendleton, Calif.