(AP) NAJAF, Iraq – Insurgents fired mortar shells at U.S. forces moving into Najaf’s vast cemetery and American jets roared overhead Wednesday, as the radical Shiite cleric leading the fight against coalition forces urged his followers to battle on even if he is killed.
The U.S. military said U.S. and Iraqi security forces in Najaf were preparing to launch a major assault against the Mahdi Army militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
“Iraqi and U.S. forces are making final preparations as we get ready to finish this fight that the Muqtada militia started,” said Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
It was unclear whether that assault would involve raiding Najaf’s holiest site, the Imam Ali Shrine, which would infuriate Iraq (news – web sites)’s Shiite majority. The military says the insurgents are using the golden-domed shrine in Najaf’s old city as a refuge and the governor had given U.S. forces permission to raid it.
Iraqi police set up checkpoints that cut Najaf in two as U.S. troops skirmished with Mahdi Army fighters near the shrine in the seventh day of fighting in the city. Gunbattles between militants and coalition forces in two other southern cities killed 18 people.
Elsewhere, a roadside bomb exploded near a market north of Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least six Iraqis and wounding nine others, a hospital official said. The explosion shook the market in Khan Bani Saad, about six miles south of Baqouba.
“The place was crowded, but there were neither police or American patrols during the time of the explosion, and we are investigating this issue,” said Baqouba police Col. Adnan Hussein.
In Najaf, militiamen were once again firing on U.S. troops from a building just 400 yards from the Imam Ali Shrine. On Tuesday, U.S. helicopter gunships pummeled the multistory hotel with rockets, missiles and 30 mm cannons, killing 20 people, the military said, in one of the closest strikes yet to the shrine.
“We keep pushing south and they just keep coming,” said Capt. Patrick McFall, from the 1st Cavalry Division.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq’s interim vice president, called on the U.S. troops to withdraw from Najaf.
“Only Iraqi forces should stay in Najaf, these forces should be responsible for security and should save Najaf from this phenomenon of killing,” al-Jaafari told Arab TV network Al-Jazeera from London on Wednesday.
Coalition forces said they were operating in the city at the request of the government.
The top health official in Najaf, Falah al-Mahani, said the deteriorating security situation was causing “a real catastrophe” for the health services.
“Ambulances are prevented from reaching the injured people by the clashing parties. Our staff are not able to reach their hospitals. We are paralyzed,” he said, adding that the fighting injured 18 members of his staff.
Sporadic explosions could be heard elsewhere in the city. U.S. Marine Maj. David Holahan said Mahdi Army militants attacked three police stations Tuesday, two with small arms fire, one with eight mortar rounds.
“We’ve pretty much just been patrolling and flying helicopters all over the place, and when we see something bad, we blow it up,” said Holahan, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines Regiment.
“I hope that you keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred,” al-Sadr said in a statement Wednesday. “I thank the dear fighters all over Iraq for what they have done to set back injustice.”
To control movement in Najaf, Iraqi police and national guards blocked roads that connect the city’s northern and southern parts Wednesday.
The U.S. military has estimated that hundreds of insurgents have been killed in Najaf since fighting began Thursday, but the militants dispute that. Five U.S. troops have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers.
Al-Mahani said 25 civilians had been killed and 146 injured by Tuesday night.
The fighting has plagued other Shiite communities across Iraq.
In Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraqi police fought off attacks from the Mahdi Army at the town’s central police station and other government offices. The fighting killed four people and wounded 20 others said Dr. Falah al-Bermany, a local health official.
“We gave orders to our forces to shoot anyone who gets near government buildings,” said Mohammed Ridha, Kut’s governor.
Overnight clashes between insurgents and British forces in the southern city of Amarah killed 14 people and injured 42, according to the Health Ministry. Local officials said many of the killed and injured were militants.
In the fighting, British forces attacked positions that militants were using to attack patrols and bases with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, Maj. Ian Clooney, a British spokesman, said. The British suffered two minor casualties.
During the day Wednesday, British tanks were patrolling the major roads in Amarah, while Mahdi Army militants walked through the alleys, witnesses said.
Also Wednesday, gunmen killed the head of a regional office of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country’s largest Shiite group.
Ali al-Khalisi, the head of SCIRI’s Diyala province was killed in Mahmoudiya, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, when gunmen drove up to his car and fired at him, said Haitham al-Husseini, a SCIRI spokesman.
Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Tawhid and Jihad group claimed responsibility for the killing in a statement posted on an Islamic web site.
In Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, groups of three to five Mahdi Army militants attacked a district council hall repeatedly Tuesday with mortars, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, clashing with U.S. and Iraqi forces, said U.S. Capt. Brian O’Malley of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.
One person was killed and 18 wounded in the skirmishes, the Health Ministry said. Other clashes in Baghdad killed seven people and wounded 11 others.
In the southern cities of Nasiriyah, Basra and Samawah, insurgents targeted coalition forces with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, causing no injuries, Clooney said.
“The insurgents are using cover and buildings to (launch) indirect attacks rather than open conflict,” he said.
Production resumed at Iraq’s vast southern oil fields after authorities reached an accord with militant Shiites who had threatened to attack the country’s vital export pipelines for crude, an Iraqi oil official told The Associated Press late Tuesday.
Iraq’s South Oil Co. reversed a decision it made Monday to curtail output as a precaution against threatened sabotage by supporters of al-Sadr.
Also Wednesday, Iraqi police defused explosives found in a white gasoline tanker parked outside a hotel used mainly by foreigners, in a busy shopping district in Baghdad.
The driver’s cabin was stacked with grenades and gasoline containers, and rocket-propelled grenades, police and Interior Ministry officials said.