BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — About 300 militia fighters have been killed in the Iraqi city of Najaf in fighting since Thursday, U.S. military officials said.
Two Marines were killed Friday in the gunbattles, according to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which also released the estimate of dead militia fighters.
Marines had joined Iraqi forces to fight the Mehdi Army, the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The military did not say how the Marines were killed.
On Thursday, the U.S. military reported one 13th Corps Support Command soldier was killed and five wounded when their convoy was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire near Najaf. So far, 926 U.S. troops have died since the U.S. invasion last year.
Najaf officials reported the deaths of an Iraqi hospital worker, two Iraqi civilians and an Iraqi police officer.
The fighting started before dawn Thursday when the Mehdi Army militia repeatedly attacked the city’s main police station, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
A U.S. military statement described the attack as “an overt violation of the cease-fire agreement” reached in June between multinational forces and al-Sadr.
“All of these terrorists and killers are working for the same organization regardless of which banners they carry or which hats they wear,” said Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Nakib. “They attacked Iraqi police, and we must respond. We have the thugs isolated. Our police forces, supported by the multinational force, are doing their job.”
An al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad on Friday blamed the Americans for breaking the cease-fire agreement and said Najaf’s governor “was the primary cause of the latest uprising.”
“We in the office of al-Sadr think that the Americans didn’t fulfill their commitment that they made to the Shiite house to put effort to make peace,” Sheikh Mahmoud al-Soudani said.
He denied reports of kidnappings by the Mehdi Army as well as the initiation of attacks on police stations.
“We certainly want peace and want to end the uprising, but we are forced to defend ourselves,” al-Soudani said. “The Mehdi Army in Najaf is defending itself. … Every one of them is defending himself and the holy sites.
“The Americans are too involved in this uprising, and they are worsening the situation. … We think that it is the Najaf governor who is putting the Americans in this position.”
Video obtained by Turkish network IHA showed fighters in Najaf, most of them dressed in civilian clothing, roaming the streets with rocket-propelled grenades. The video also showed U.S. tanks rolling through the dusty streets and American aircraft overhead.
The clashes took place in Najaf’s city center, near the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf’s Old Town section, according to the Iraqi Defense Ministry and the governor’s office.
The violence began Monday as an al-Sadr spokesman accused U.S. forces of being involved in an operation against the cleric. The spokesman said U.S. and Iraqi forces surrounded and fired at al-Sadr’s home in a neighborhood of Najaf. The cleric’s Mehdi Army began to shoot back, and a gunbattle continued for hours, he said.
A senior official with the multinational forces said no U.S. troops were used. The Najaf governor did not request U.S. support till Wednesday.
Twenty dead in Baghdad fighting
Unlike Najaf, Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood was quiet Friday morning, a day after clashes between U.S. forces and the Medhi Army militia left 20 Iraqis dead and 114 others wounded, officials said.
The Iraqi deaths included civilians and fighters, who died during the battles that began Thursday and lasted into the night.
U.S. soldiers battled small bands of the Mehdi Army with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, Capt. Brian O’Malley of the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division said. O’Malley said the fighters were “quickly dispersed or obliterated.”
Sadr City is a poor Shiite neighborhood named after al-Sadr’s late father.