Combat resumed in Najaf on Sunday, as U.S. forces edged into the narrow streets surrounding the shrine of Imam Ali and militiamen fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades from around the holy site that serves as their firebase.
The renewed clashes signaled that U.S. forces intend to remain active in the fight, a day after Iraq's interim government announced it was dispatching the Iraqi army to lead the battle against forces loyal to Moqtada Sadr, a rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric. But the government said Sunday that its plans to use force to expel Sadr from the shrine were on hold.
A Marine commander said the U.S. forces were trying to keep pressure on the militia, called the Mahdi Army, while awaiting the arrival of the newly trained Iraqi troops.
"The Iraqi government has asked us to squeeze in," said Maj. David Holahan of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Two soldiers were killed in fighting in the city's vast graveyard, bringing to eight the number of U.S. military deaths in the area since Aug. 5. U.S. commanders said they inflicted substantial casualties on the militiamen.
After dark, U.S. military spotters called in a series of deafening artillery barrages on the cemetery, targeting a concentration of militiamen more than a mile from the shrine, said Marine Capt. Coby Moran. At the same time, troops from the Army's 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment conducted raids in Najaf's old city, a neighborhood south of the sacred site.
During daylight, mortar fire, rocket-propelled grenades, tank rounds, machine-gun fire and the crack of sniper rifles echoed intermittently across the sun-baked downtown, largely deserted by residents ordered to evacuate the crowded neighborhoods near the gold-domed shrine.
Iraqi police swept into the hotel housing international and Iraqi journalists and threatened to arrest anyone who did not leave the city. A reporter for an Iranian satellite channel was reportedly taken into custody while broadcasting live from a rooftop.
The order added to concerns about restrictions on the news media in the new Iraq. Earlier this month, the interim government closed the Baghdad office of the al-Jazeera satellite television station, saying the Qatar-based network was encouraging the insurgency.
Details of the Iraqi deployment remained uncertain. Defense Minister Hazim Shalan visited a Marine base in Najaf, but afterward senior officers said they remained uncertain how many Iraqi troops would arrive, or when.
The U.S. commander said forces supported the decision to use Iraqis in the crisis, given the unpopularity of U.S. forces 16 months after the invasion that toppled the government of president Saddam Hussein and the extraordinary sensitivities surrounding the shrine.
But officers also said they were concerned that the delay would mean more casualties, and they expressed frustration with the closely circumscribed rules of engagement involving combat near the sacred site. At one point in the afternoon, troops in the cemetery north of the shrine dodged more than 15 mortar shells fired from 150 yards outside the shrine, but could not return fire.
"We're taught: You receive fire, you go forward, destroy it," said Maj. Bob Pizzitola, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. "But we understand the bigger picture. If we were to do that, we'd have a bigger fight on our hands throughout Iraq.
"We understand we can't do it, but it's frustrating, like being the designated driver."
A decorative perimeter wall surrounding the mosque was damaged by an explosion Sunday, prompting coverage on Arabic-language satellite channels and ardent vows from volunteers to protect the site. The source of the explosion could not be learned precisely, but around 2:30 p.m., a U.S. tank had fired a 120mm round in the general direction, targeting a house from which militiamen had fired five rocket-propelled grenades within five minutes. Pizzitola said it was "possible, but unlikely" that the round reached the wall after piercing the house.
That exchange signaled the beginning of a steady uptick in combat throughout the day and into the night. Capt. Brian Ennesser, the 1st Battalion's intelligence officer, said Sadr's besieged forces used a cease-fire over the weekend as an opportunity to evacuate wounded fighters, bring in food and ammunition, and plant booby traps along routes used by U.S. forces.
The lull also might have provided an opening for additional fighters to reach the city. Ten minibuses of young men, many flying flags reading Sadr City Fedayeen, traveled from Baghdad to Najaf over the weekend, according to an aide to Ayatollah Kazim Haeri. Sadr City is a large Shiite slum in Baghdad named for Sadr's father, a grand ayatollah who was assassinated in 1999.
Haeri, a senior cleric based in the Iranian holy city of Qom, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, forbidding the Iraqi police and National Guard to fight against Iraqis, according to the satellite news channel al-Arabiya. Sadr looks to Haeri for guidance.
Elsewhere, officials announced the deaths of three other soldiers in the U.S.-led coalition. A U.S. soldier was killed early Sunday when a roadside bomb exploded in northern Baghdad, according to a military spokesman. A Ukrainian captain was killed when a mine exploded as soldiers were drawing water, according to the Defense Ministry in Kiev, which did not give a location for the fatality. Ukraine has about 1,600 troops in Iraq.
A Dutch soldier was killed and five others were seriously wounded when their military vehicle was ambushed in southern town of Rumaythah, where some of the 1,300 Dutch troops in Iraq are based.
Correspondent Doug Struck in Baghdad and special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.