NAJAF, Iraq – A 2,500-strong U.S. force, backed by tanks and artillery, pushed to the outskirts of the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Tuesday for a showdown with a radical cleric who said he was prepared to die in his battle against the U.S.-led occupation.
An American helicopter went down near Fallujah, and an insurgent said he hit it with a rocket-propelled grenade. There were no reported injuries to the crew, although a team securing the site later suffered unspecified casualties, a Marine commander said.
At least 78 U.S. troops were killed and 561 were wounded in Iraq in the first 12 days of April, said Lt. Gen. Richard Cody, the deputy chief of staff for operations at the Pentagon.
April is becoming the deadliest month since the Iraq war began in March 2003. Since then, at least 674 U.S. troops have died, according to the Pentagon.
Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said Monday he has asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to adjust the U.S. troop rotation into and out of Iraq this spring so that U.S. commanders can have the use of perhaps 10,000 more soldiers than they otherwise would have.
On the way to Najaf, the U.S. force’s 80-vehicle convoy was ambushed Monday night by gunmen firing small arms and setting of roadside bombs north of the city. One soldier was killed and an American civilian contractor was wounded, officers in the convoy said.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said their mission was to “capture or kill” radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In an interview Tuesday with Al Manar, the Hezbollah television station in Lebanon, al-Sadr said he was not in direct negotiations with U.S. forces, and that he continued to demand the Americans withdraw from Najaf.
“I am only afraid of God,” he said. “I am ready to sacrifice myself for the Iraqi people.”
Units set up a cordon on approaches to the city, barring his al-Mahdi Army militiamen from leaving.
Iraqi leaders launched hurried negotiations aimed at averting a U.S. assault on the city, site of the holiest Shiite site, the Imam Ali Shrine.
The sons of Iraq’s three grand ayatollahs — including the most powerful one, Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani — met al-Sadr Monday night in his Najaf office and assured him of their opposition to any U.S. strike.
“They agreed not to allow any hostile act against Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr and the city of Najaf,” said a person at the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The delegation also was reportedly trying to work out a compromise to prevent a U.S. attack.
Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, the commander of the force, said his troops were aware that a “single shot in Najaf” by U.S. soldiers could outrage Iraq’s powerful Shiite majority.
“Look at this as the Shiite Vatican,” Pittard said before the deployment.
The grand ayatollahs — older, moderate leaders with immense influence among Shiites — have long kept the young, fiercely anti-American al-Sadr at arm’s length. The meeting reflected an eagerness to avoid bloodshed and al-Sadr’s increasing influence.
In a concession to American demands, al-Sadr ordered his militiamen out of police stations and government buildings in Najaf and the nearby cities of Karbala and Kufa. Police were back in their stations and on patrols, while al-Sadr black-garbed gunmen largely stayed out of sight.
But the militia rebuffed a U.S. demand to disband.
Earlier Tuesday, al-Sadr militiamen based in the main mosque in the nearby city of Kufa opened fire on a passing patrol of Spanish forces, prompting a short gunbattle.
Overnight, a mortar was fired at the Spanish base between Kufa and Najaf, and Spanish forces repelled an attack on a nearby water distillation plant.
Near Fallujah, a masked insurgent said he hit the U.S. helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, although Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne said it was not known what caused the Sikorsky H-53 to go down.
Troops removed those on board, and “there is no indication the crew was injured,” Byrne said. He was not certain how many were aboard.
The team that secured the craft was ambushed by gunmen using small weapons, RPGs and mortars, and it suffered casualties, Byrne said, but he would not give details.
Witnesses told The Associated Press that four U.S. soldiers were shot by insurgents at the site about 12 miles east of Fallujah in the village of Zawbaa.
Another team later blew up the aircraft to prevent it from being looted, he said.
While a cease-fire has kept Fallujah relatively calm for four days, the area between the besieged city and Baghdad has seen heavy clashes by insurgents and U.S. forces. An Apache helicopter was shot down Sunday in nearby Abu Ghraib, killing its two crewmembers.
Before Tuesday’s helicopter crash, a U.S. convoy was attacked near the same site, and two Humvees and a truck were burning, said witnesses, who also reported U.S. casualties.
The U.S. military said about 70 Americans and 700 insurgents had been killed this month, the bloodiest since the fall of Baghdad a year ago with U.S.-led forces fighting on three fronts: against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, Shiite militiamen in the south and gunmen in Baghdad and on its outskirts.
More than 600 Iraqis have been killed in Fallujah since the siege began on April 5, said the head of the city hospital, Rafie al-Issawi. Most of the dead registered at hospitals and clinics were women, children and elderly, he said.
In all, about 880 Iraqis have been killed in the violence, according to an AP count based on statements by Iraqi hospital officials, U.S. military statements and Iraqi police.
Another toll from the week’s violence: more than 40 foreigners reportedly were taken hostage by insurgents, although a dozen had been released Sunday and Monday. Those still believed held included three Japanese and truck driver Thomas Hamill of Macon, Miss., whose captors had threatened to kill them.
Four Italians working as private guards for DTS Security, a U.S. company, were reported missing in Iraq, the ANSA news agency quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying Tuesday. An Arab satellite TV network said the four were kidnapped by insurgents near Fallujah and showed video of them in a room surrounded by gunmen wearing Arab headscarves.
Eight Ukrainian and Russian employees of a Russian energy company who were kidnaped in Baghdad were freed Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Seven Chinese were freed Monday after being held for a day, China’s official news agency said. Two reportedly were injured.
Two U.S. soldiers and seven employees of a U.S. contractor, including Hamill, were missing after an attack Friday on a convoy west of Baghdad, Sanchez said.
The recent burst of violence has exposed weaknesses in Iraq’s U.S.-trained security forces. A battalion of the Iraqi army refused to fight in Fallujah, Sanchez said. And some police defected to al-Sadr’s forces, Abizaid said.
In an effort to toughen the Iraqi forces, Abizaid said the U.S. military will reach out to former senior members of Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army — a reversal in strategy. The military has tried to avoid relying on top officials from the ousted regime.
“It’s … very clear that we’ve got to get more senior Iraqis involved — former military types involved in the security forces,” he said. “In the next couple of days, you’ll see a large number of senior officers being appointed to key positions in the ministry of defense and the Iraqi joint staff and in Iraqi field commands.”
AP correspondents Abdul Hussein Yousef in Najaf and Abdul-Qader Saadi in Fallujah contributed to this report.