Fighting in Najaf rages on



A roadside bomb killed six Iraqis north of Baghdad.
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) -- Insurgents fired mortar shells at U.S. forces moving into Najaf's vast cemetery and American jets roared overhead today, as the radical cleric leading the fight against coalition forces urged his followers to battle on even if he is killed.
Fighting in Najaf entered its seventh day, with Iraqi police manning checkpoints that cut the holy city in two. No U.S. casualties were reported in the fighting, which took place near the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest in Shia Islam.
On Tuesday, U.S. helicopter gunships pummeled a multistoried building 400 yards from the gold-domed Imam Ali Shrine with rockets, missiles and 30 mm cannons -- one of the closest strikes yet. The military said about 20 people were killed inside the building.
But by today more militants had entered the scorched hotel to resume firing at troops.
"We keep pushing south and they just keep coming," said Capt. Patrick McFall, from the 1st Cavalry Division.
Iraqi official
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's new 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 today.
Coalition forces said they were operating in the city at the request of the government.
Sporadic explosions could be heard elsewhere in the city. U.S. Marine Maj. David Holahan said militants with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi army 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.
Roadside bomb
Elsewhere, a roadside bomb exploded in a market north of Baghdad today, killing at least six Iraqis and wounding nine others, a hospital official said. The explosion shook the market in Khan Ban Sad, about six miles south of Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad.
"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.
Al-Sadr's fighters have been battling coalition forces for days in a number of Shiite strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
"I hope that you keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred," al-Sadr said in a statement today. "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 today.
Death tolls
The U.S. military has estimated that hundreds of insurgents have been killed in Najaf, but the militants dispute that. Five U.S. troops have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers.
The fighting has plagued other Shiite communities across Iraq.
In Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraqi police fought off attacks from the al-Mahdi army at the town's central police station and other government offices.
"We gave orders to our forces to shoot anyone who gets near government buildings," said Mohammed Ridha, Kut's governor.
Violence persisted throughout the country's Shiite regions, with overnight clashes between insurgents and British forces in the southern city of Amarah killing 10 militants, according to hospital officials and witnesses. An additional 50 Iraqis, including 20 militants, were injured, hospital officials said.
British tanks were seen patrolling the major roads, while al-Mahdi army militants walked through the alleys, witnesses said.
Maj. Ian Clooney, a British spokesman, said British forces attacked positions Tuesday night that militants were using to attack patrols and bases with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The British suffered two minor casualties.
Dropping leaflets
Coalition forces also dropped leaflets from planes telling the people of Amarah that the fighting was only hurting the people of the city.
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.
Also today, 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 cabinet was stacked with grenades and gasoline containers, and rocket-propelled grenades, police and Interior Ministry officials said.
In Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, groups of three to five al-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.
The Health Ministry said the skirmish killed one person and wounded 18. Other clashes in Baghdad killed seven people and wounded 11 others.
Oil field production
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.
Oil markets welcomed the news, with U.S. crude futures falling by 44 U.S. cents a barrel in late New York trading.
Iraq's South Oil Co. reversed a decision it made Monday to curtail output as a precaution against possible sabotage by supporters of al-Sadr. The cleric's followers had warned they might attack pipelines in southern Iraq unless the government halted crude exports. Iraq's other export line in the north to Turkey is already out of operation.

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