NAJAF, Iraq -- US forces in Najaf came under their most intense attack yet by Shi'ite militiamen in a clash yesterday that may have killed up to 20 Iraqis. But the military still held back from going after the militia's leader, a radical cleric, to avoid angering Iraq's Shi'ite majority.
In Baghdad, insurgents opened fire on US soldiers guarding a weapons cache, killing one soldier and wounding two, the military said. Elsewhere, a Marine was killed by enemy fire in Anbar Province, the western Iraqi province where the turbulent cities of Ramadi and Fallujah are located.
The deaths brought the US toll to 153 since April 1, including 15 in May. At least 755 US troops have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. US troops battling insurgents in west Baghdad pounded rebel positions with artillery fire last night, a series of eight or more heavy blasts that resounded through central Baghdad, the Army said.
US troops in Najaf, south of the capital, clashed for hours with Shi'ite militiamen who barraged the Americans' base with mortars overnight, then opened fire in the afternoon from several directions. Tank and machine-gun fire demolished a building that troops said was the source of shooting, raising a pillar of smoke.
Before dawn yesterday, militiamen shelled the troops with about 20 mortars, hitting in and around the base where US troops replaced Spanish forces a week ago. There were no casualties.
The US military is deployed at the base and outside Najaf to crack down on radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia. But the troops have held back because the military fears angering Shi'ite Muslims, whose holiest site in Iraq -- the Imam Ali Shrine -- is about 3 miles from the US base.
Lieutenant Colonel Pat White said American troops would "maintain our defense posture" until someone "much, much higher than me makes a different decision." He estimated 20 militiamen were killed in the battle and said there were few civilian casualties because troops were using precision fire. "I think every soldier here understands the sensitivities of the situation," he said.
At a Najaf hospital, one slain Iraqi policeman and 16 wounded civilians were brought in, including a woman, who hospital officials said were hit by American fire. Razzaq Hussein, 22, a construction worker, was wounded by shrapnel from a shell.