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Iraqis Describe Plot To Kill Shiite Clerics

Iraqi troops move in during clashes at Zarqaa, north of Najaf. Iraqi officials say at least 200 fighters loyal to a Shiite cult leader were killed.
Iraqi troops move in during clashes at Zarqaa, north of Najaf. Iraqi officials say at least 200 fighters loyal to a Shiite cult leader were killed. (By Alaa Al-marjani -- Associated Press)

Ayad Abu Gilel, the brother of the governor of Najaf, showed the correspondent a 53-minute videotape recorded inside the compound.

The footage showed a wide trench ringing the encampment and a series of tunnels or bunkers dug into earthen mounds to offer protection. The video showed at least eight vehicles mounted with antiaircraft machine guns. Dozens of dead bodies, some burned, could be seen lying amid mortars, AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry.

Iraqi and U.S. military officials characterized the attack as a positive signal that the Iraqi security forces were able to lead a major battle and were willing to target extremists from the same Muslim sect that runs the central government. The U.S. military handed over primary control of Najaf province to Iraqi security forces last month.

"This is a very clear message from the government that no one except the government carrying arms is acceptable, whether Shia or Sunni," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "It reveals the firm commitment of the prime minister that any outlaw will be dealt with very strongly."

According to a statement issued by the U.S. military, Iraqi army and police forces deployed to the area of the encampment following a tip that gunmen were moving toward Najaf among Shiite pilgrims traveling to observe the religious holiday of Ashura, which culminates Tuesday. More than 200 gunmen attacked the joint patrol using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, the military said. U.S. ground troops and aircraft were called in for support.

"The aggressive manner in which the Iraqi soldiers performed north of [Najaf] going after the anti-Iraqi forces was impressive," said Col. Michael Garrett, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, in the statement.

During a news conference in Najaf, the deputy provincial governor, Abdul Hussein Abtan, said the fighters were able to amass the vehicles and weaponry under the pretext that they were moving building materials destined for the Najaf airport, which is under construction. He said the group surged in numbers over the past 10 days in preparation for attacks on pilgrims, shrines in Najaf and clerics on the last day of Ashura. Among the fighters captured or killed were two Egyptians, a Lebanese and a Sudanese, he said.

"There were extensive preparations, they were highly trained, and they fought in an orderly way," said Wahli. "Their leader kept insisting through a loudspeaker that they keep fighting, despite repeated attempts by the Iraqi security forces to get them to stop."

Elsewhere in Iraq, national police patrols found 47 bodies over the past day, including 43 from around Baghdad, said Maj. Gen. Sami Mahmoud of the Interior Ministry, who said all of the unidentified people were shot to death.

Also, an insurgent threw a hand grenade at an Iraqi police patrol in the Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad, killing two policemen and wounding four others, Mahmoud said.

A car bomb exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk targeting a Kurdish militia commander, killing one person and injuring seven others, said Brig. Gen. Turhan Yousif, the Kirkuk police chief.

Sarhan reported from Najaf. Staff writer Ernesto LondoƱo and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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