(AP) NAJAF, Iraq – Thousands of U.S. troops and Iraqi soldiers launched a major assault Thursday on militiamen loyal to a radical Shiite cleric in Najaf, with explosions and gunfire echoing around the holy city’s revered Imam Ali shrine and its vast cemetery.
The coalition forces were trying to crush an uprising led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose fighters have been battling U.S. troops in Shiite strongholds across Iraq for a week. Hundreds of people have fled in the last few days, moving in with relatives and friends in quieter neighborhoods, or out of Najaf entirely.
“Major operations to destroy the militia have begun,” said U.S. Marine Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines Regiment. He said thousands of U.S. troops were taking part.
A column of U.S. tanks lined one edge of the cemetery, as a helicopter flew overhead on patrol. Soldiers crawled on the roofs of single-story buildings, setting up positions.
By Thursday afternoon, five civilians were killed, according to Nabil Mohammed, a health worker in Najaf. Two soldiers were injured when hit by a mortar shell while standing in an intersection of the cemetery, the military said.
“It’s pretty standard, they’d push up here, fire off a few rounds, fire RPGs, then leave,” said Capt. Patrick McFall.
The offensive risked enraging Iraq’s Shiite majority — including those who do not support the uprising — if it targets the shrine, where many of the insurgents have taken refuge. The shrine, the cemetery, and Najaf’s Old City were cordoned off and any attack on them would be led by Iraqis — some with minimal training — to deflect anger.
Officials said the militants would be contained in the shrine and Iraqis could then go in.
“Today’s operations are designed to restrict freedom of movement of Sadr forces in (nearby) Kufa and Najaf and to further isolate them in these mosques which they use as a base of operations,” said U.S. Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel.
U.S. commanders say interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would have to approve any operation at the shrine itself, and operation that involves entering the shrine would likely involve Iraqi national guard troops, not U.S. forces.
“There are instructions that the Iraqi forces and the Iraqi national guard only will enter the compound and secure it, so ordinary citizens can go back and pray at this shrine,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said.
Also Thursday, officials said attacks by insurgents and Mahdi militants on government buildings and police stations in the southern city of Kut have killed at least 70 people, all of them Iraqi.
Iraqi forces fought off the militants who targeted the city hall, police stations and Iraqi National Guard barracks, the U.S. military said, causing casualties on both sides.
“Seventy-two people were killed and 148 injured in clashes in the last 24 hours,” said Falah al-Bairaman, director-general of health for Wasit, the province of which Kut is the capital city.
Iraq’s health ministry said 75 were killed in Wednesday’s fighting in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad.
The United States had announced its plan for the offensive Wednesday, and in response, al-Sadr loyalists in the southern city of Basra threatened to blow up the oil pipelines and port infrastructure there. A similar threat Monday caused oil officials to briefly stop pumping from the southern oil wells.
The U.S. military has estimated that hundreds of insurgents have been killed in the Najaf fighting, but the militants dispute the figure. Five U.S. troops have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers.
“We’re starting to put the pressure on the militia to fight, die, or capitulate,” Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, from the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, said Thursday.
Jawdat Kadhem al-Qureishi, a member of Najaf’s city council resigned in protest of the offensive, he said Thursday.
“I announce my resignation to denounce and condemn the terrorist acts and the shelling that the city of Najaf and the Imam Ali Shrine have been subjected to,” he said. “I condemn all the terrorist acts that the U.S. forces have committed.”
Earlier, Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi, who has been a staunch supporter of U.S. forces here, claimed al-Qureishi resigned because kidnappers had snatched his father and demanded he step down in return for his release. Al-Qureishi did not comment on al-Zurufi’s report.
Al-Zurufi later said city council members were working to defuse the crisis — though efforts to negotiate an end to the violence over the past week had failed and it appeared unlikely that any new one would succeed.
“I cannot give details about this initiative and we hope that this crisis is solved in the coming days. The situation is unbearable in the city and the militiamen should leave,” he said.
The fighting forced hundreds of people to flee.
“We have put up with hunger, electricity outages and lack of water, but we cannot put up with death,” said Aqil Zwein, 42.
Elsewhere, two U.S. Marines were killed when a CH-53 helicopter crashed landed in the volatile Anbar province west of Baghdad, the military said Thursday. Three other people were injured in the crash Wednesday night. The military said that no enemy fire was observed at the time.
An Islamic Web site carried a videotape Wednesday that appeared to show militants in Iraq beheading a man they identified as a CIA (news – web sites) agent. The authenticity of the videotape could not be verified immediately. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said CIA officials have accounted for all employees and no one is missing.
Al-Sadr’s fighters have been battling coalition forces since Aug. 5 in a resurgence of a spring uprising that had been dormant for two months following a series of truces.
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.