NAJAF, Iraq -- Explosions and gunfire shook Najaf's Old City yesterday in a fierce battle between US forces and Shi'ite militants, as negotiations dragged on for the handover of the shrine that the fighters have used as their stronghold.
Late yesterday, US warplanes and helicopters attacked positions in the Old City for the second night with bombs and gunfire, witnesses said. Militant leaders said the outer walls of the Imam Ali shrine compound were damaged in the attacks.
The US military, which says it has been careful to avoid damaging the compound, asserted that troops returned fire from militants on sites south of the shrine and did not hit the compound wall.
Also, five US troops were reported dead in separate episodes, and insurgents yesterday released an American journalist with Boston-area ties who had been held hostage for more than a week and had been threatened with death if US forces did not leave Najaf.
The clashes yesterday in Najaf seemed more intense than in recent days as US forces sealed off the Old City. But Iraqi government officials counseled patience, saying they intended to resolve the crisis without raiding the shrine, one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest sites.
"The government will leave no stone unturned to reach a peaceful settlement," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser. "It has no intention or interest in killing more people or having even the most trivial damage to the shrine. We have a vested interest in a peaceful settlement."
Senior government officials said last week that an Iraqi force had been preparing to raid the shrine to expel the militants loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, but interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi quickly backed off that threat.
Such an operation would anger Shi'ites across the country and could turn them against the new government as it tries to gain legitimacy and tackle the 16-month-old insurgency.
In Anbar Province, the heart of the Sunni Muslim insurgency, four US Marines with the First Marine Expeditionary Force were killed, the military announced yesterday.
One of the Marines was killed in action Saturday and two others died Saturday of wounds received while conducting "security and stability operations" in the province, the military said. Another Marine was killed Saturday when his Humvee flipped after running into a tank, the military said.
A roadside bomb attack yesterday targeting a US military convoy outside the northern city of Mosul killed a US soldier assigned to Task Force Olympia and wounded another, the military said. The injured soldier was in stable condition. Two Iraqi children also were injured in the blast, said Dr. Mohammed Ahmed of Jumhuri Hospital.
As of Friday, 949 US service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the US Defense Department.
Late yesterday, US journalist Micah Garen, who was kidnapped Aug. 13 in the southern city of Nasiriyah, was released with his Iraqi translator at Sadr's offices there after the cleric's aides appealed for his freedom.
Reached by phone last night at the New Haven, Conn., home of Garen's father, Alan H. Garen, a woman who identified herself as a family member said: "We're just so happy that he is free; it's wonderful." She said the family will release a statement thanking everyone when Garen is home.
Garen and his translator, Amir Doushi, had been walking through a market when two armed men in civilian clothes seized them, police said. Insurgents later released a video of Garen and threatened to kill him if US troops did not leave Najaf.
In a brief interview with the pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera after his release, Garen thanked Sadr's representatives for their work, which included an appeal to the kidnappers during Friday prayers.
Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, a Sadr aide, said the kidnappers mistakenly had thought Garen was working for the US intelligence services.
"The kidnappers listened to the call that we made during Friday prayers, and they contacted us and we asked them to bring him to [Sadr's] office and promised that no one would pursue them," Khafaji said.
In Najaf, US tanks rumbled down deserted streets yesterday, while sporadic gunfire filled the air. The roads leading to the shrine were muddied and filled with chunks of concrete ripped from the streets. Black smoke trailed from a building, as the clatter of automatic gunfire rang out.
In the afternoon, a fierce battle Sadr's militia launched a mortar barrage at US troops, witnesses said. Calm returned to the city after about a half-hour.
US forces sealed off the Old City, the center of the more than two weeks of fighting in Najaf, restoring a cordon that had been loosened in recent days.
Several mortar attacks targeted police offices in the city, but no one was injured, officials said.
Early yesterday, US warplanes bombed the Old City and shelling could be heard in the streets, witnesses said. The US military could not confirm the bombing.
At least three people were killed and 18 injured in overnight fighting, said Tawfiq Mohammed of Najaf General Hospital.
Fighting in the nearby city of Kufa on Saturday killed 40 militants, according to the Interior Ministry. But Mahmoud al-Sudani, a Sadr aide, called the assertion "government propaganda" and said one militant had been killed.
Sadr has not been seen in public in days, but Sudani said the cleric was in good health and remained in Najaf.
The crisis in Najaf, which has spread to other Shi'ite communities, seemed on the verge of resolution Friday, when insurgents agreed to turn over the shrine to representatives of Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
But the transfer has bogged down amid disputes over technicalities. Representatives from both sides said yesterday they still were working out the details.
Rubaie said the government was willing to wait while the two sides worked out an agreement on the shrine, but added that Sadr needs to dismantle his Mahdi militia to end the violence.
Globe correspondent Jack Encarnacao contributed to this report.