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1/29/07-NAJAF, Iraq

Attack on Shiite clerics foiled

Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani allegedly was a target. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani allegedly was a target.
Iraqi soldiers take up positions Sunday at Zarqa, Iraq, as they battle insurgents northeast of the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Iraqi soldiers take up positions Sunday at Zarqa, Iraq, as they battle insurgents northeast of the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
A suspected insurgent sits in a police vehicle Sunday after his arrest near Najaf. Fighting thwarted a likely plot to kill pilgims. A suspected insurgent sits in a police vehicle Sunday after his arrest near Najaf. Fighting thwarted a likely plot to kill pilgims.

 Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other top Shiite religious figures were the apparent targets of an insurgent plot thwarted in an intense battle near the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, Iraqi officials said.

U.S. forces took the lead role Monday in fighting against insurgents north of Najaf.

The battle apparently foiled a plot to kill leading pilgrims and clerics, including al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite leader. The insurgents were planning a massive siege of Najaf on Tuesday, the culmination of the Shiite holy period of Ashura.

By Monday, the operation, involving at least 1,000 Iraqi security forces, was "90 percent over," according to Najaf police Col. Ali Jraiwi.

An estimated 250 to 300 gunmen were killed in the fight near the south-central Iraqi city, Iraqi Interior and Defense Ministry officials said.

At least two Americans and six Iraqi security force members also were killed, with another 30 Iraqis wounded, Jraiwi said.

A U.S. military helicopter went down during the battle Sunday afternoon, killing two soldiers aboard, the U.S. command in Baghdad said.

Iraqi officials said insurgents shot down the chopper.

A U.S. military official said that small-arms fire is most likely what caused the helicopter to go down.

It is the third U.S. helicopter to have been downed by suspected enemy fire in a little more than a week.

Al-Sistani 'like the Shia pope'

The possible death of al-Sistani "would really plunge Iraq and the possibly the rest of the region into a bloodbath," said Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival," a recent book on the rise of the sect.

"Ayatollah Sistani is the most revered and the most followed Shia spiritual leader," Nasr said.

"He is like the Shia pope. Shias follow him across the Middle East in religious affairs, and his death at the hands of the insurgents would be of enormous symbolic value."

Iraqi officials said a force of about 400 to 600 insurgents planned to seize control of Najaf and the surrounding province.

Jraiwi said the Iraqis were tipped off that insurgents were gathering near Zarqa, a town about six miles (10 kilometers) north of Najaf.

He said they moved southward among convoys of Shiite pilgrims headed for Najaf for Ashura, when Shiites mark the seventh-century martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson.

Ashura observances had been banned under Saddam Hussein. They have been marred by sectarian killings since resuming after his 2003 ouster, with 180 killed in bombings that targeted pilgrims in Baghdad and Karbala in 2004.

Jraiwi said captured fighters told Iraqi authorities they planned to attack senior clerics and the Imam Ali Shrine at the heart of the city.

He said insurgents were using small arms, mortars and rockets against Iraqi soldiers and police backed by U.S. troops and aircraft.

The battle began about 5:30 a.m. Sunday (9:30 p.m. Saturday ET). Iraqi police and troops were overwhelmed by the size of the insurgent force, which held well-fortified positions, an Interior Ministry official said.

The Iraqi forces withdrew after six police were killed and 19 others were wounded, including four Iraqi soldiers and Najaf's police chief, the official said. The Iraqi commanders then called for U.S. military support, the official said.

Other developments

  • A series of bombings across Baghdad on Monday killed at least five people and wounded 15 others, an Iraqi Interior Ministry official said.

  • Iraqi schoolgirls taking midterm exams were the target of a mortar attack Sunday in Baghdad that killed five students and wounded 21, an Interior Ministry official said. Insurgents fired at least three mortar rounds at a girls secondary school in western Baghdad, the official said. The slain girls were between the ages of 12 and 14. 

    CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

  • Source: CNN Newsource

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