NAJAF, Iraq (AP) – Thousands of U.S. troops sealed off Najaf’s vast cemetery, its old city and a revered Shiite shrine Thursday and unleashed a tank, infantry and helicopter assault against militants loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Arab television reported he was wounded and holed up in the shrine.

It was impossible to confirm whether al-Sadr was in fact wounded or know how serious his reported wounds were. Both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya quoted one of the cleric’s aides, Ahmed al-Shaibany, as saying he was wounded during the clashes and inside the shrine compound.

“Sayyed Muqtada was wounded in American bombing,” al-Shaibany told the Reuters news service, the New York Times reported this morning on its Web site. Another spokesman confirmed the report and a third said the incident happened early today as U.S.-led troops clashed with fighters loyal to al-Sadr near an ancient cemetery in the heart of Najaf, Reuters reported.

Al-Sadr has vowed to fight “until the last drop of my blood has been spilled.” Troops also stormed the radical cleric’s home, but he was not there.

As billows of black smoke drifted across Najaf amid the clatter of military helicopters, gunmen in a house near the shrine shot at U.S. forces patrolling the 5-square-mile cemetery. Militants hiding in the cemetery took fire from the Apaches and from American soldiers crawling on the roofs of single-story buildings. When the gunships turned away, the insurgents in the graveyard shot back.

As the day began, the military trumpeted the operation as the beginning of a major assault on al-Sadr’s fighters.

“Major operations to destroy the militia have begun,” said Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.

Later Thursday, a spokesman for the top Marine command in Iraq, Lt. Col. T.V. Johnson, said that although there was some fighting and some Najaf residents have fled the city, the combat has been “sporadic and there have been no major engagements” with the militiamen.

Nevertheless, the offensive threatened to inflame Iraq’s Shiite majority – especially if the fighting damages the shrine – and presented the biggest test yet for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who is trying to crush the violence plaguing the country while working to persuade Iraqis of the legitimacy of his unelected government.

Allawi appealed to the militants to give up their arms and leave the Imam Ali shrine, which holds the remains of the exalted Shia saint Ali and where the insurgents have holed up during the last week of fighting here.

“These places have never been exposed to such violations in the past,” Allawi said in a statement.

U.S. troops surrounded, and then broke into, al-Sadr’s apparently empty house and later dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building about 750 yards away where insurgents were hiding as part of the effort to crush the uprising by al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia. U.S. officials said in recent days they had no plans to arrest the cleric.

Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who left Najaf for London to undergo medical treatment before fighting broke out, expressed “deep sorrow and great worry” about the violence and called on all sides to end the crisis quickly. His office was working to mediate an end to the fighting, he said.

The offensive in this holy city has already sparked protests among many Shiites.

Nearly 5,000 al-Sadr sympathizers took to the streets in Basra on Thursday, demanding U.S. troops withdraw from Najaf and condemning Allawi for working with the Americans. Several hundred Iraqis also protested in Baghdad.

In the nearby city of Amarah, hundreds of Iraqi National Guardsmen said they were joining al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army until the Americans leave Najaf, and 16 members of Najaf’s provincial council suspended their membership to protest the offensive.

Violence across the country, much of it involving al-Sadr’s fighters, has killed at least 172 Iraqis and injured 643 since Wednesday morning, the Health Ministry said.

West of Baghdad, two U.S. Marines were killed and three wounded when a CH-53 helicopter crashed late Wednesday in the volatile Anbar province. No enemy fire was observed at the time of the crash, the military said.

The casualty toll from Thursday’s fighting in the holy city was unclear. At least five Iraqi civilians were killed by the afternoon, said Nabil Mohammed, a health worker in the city. Two American soldiers were wounded by a mortar shell while standing in an intersection on the cemetery’s edge, the military said.

Before Thursday, the U.S. military had estimated that hundreds of insurgents had been killed in the Najaf fighting over the past week, but the militants dispute the figure. Five Americans have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers, it had said.

Earlier fighting between al-Sadr supporters and coalition forces in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, killed at least 72 Iraqis in one of the most intense battles in that city in months. Iraqi forces fought off militants Wednesday who attacked the city hall, police stations and Iraqi National Guard barracks, the U.S. military said.

The fighting in Kut culminated in a daring assault under a hail of gunfire by Iraqi forces in a small boat who retook a key bridge, the U.S. military said. The military sent an AC-130 gunship to support coalition and Iraqi forces in the city. At least one police station and 23 other buildings were destroyed in the fighting, the military said.

In the southern city of Basra, where British forces have been fighting with the Mahdi Army for days, a roadside bomb Thursday killed a British soldier on patrol.

Clashes in the Baghdad Shiite slum of Sadr City killed three Iraqis and wounded 33 others, health officials said.

Al-Sadr’s fighters have battled coalition forces since Aug. 5 in a resurgence of a spring uprising that was dormant for two months following a series of truces. The cleric exhorted his followers Wednesday to fight on even if he was killed.

The Pentagon said that about 2,200 Marines, along with 500 to 1,000 soldiers and an undisclosed number of U.S.-trained Iraqi troops, were involved in the offensive Thursday.

As a helicopter flew overhead, a column of U.S. tanks lined one edge of the huge cemetery sprawling out from the Imam Ali shrine. Soldiers crawled on roofs to fire at militants.

“It’s pretty standard: They’d push up here, fire off a few rounds, fire RPGs, then leave,” Capt. Patrick McFall said of the insurgents.

As the fighting began, many residents near Najaf’s Old City, the center of much of the violence, fled their homes.

“We have put up with hunger, electricity outages and lack of water, but we cannot put up with death,” said Aqil Zwein, 42, as he left his home near the cemetery.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials were at pains to assure the public that U.S. troops were not in the shrine compound and only Iraqi forces would enter the shrine if it became necessary.

Damage to the building or a U.S. military presence there would set off an outcry across the country and much of the Muslim world.

The government blamed the al-Sadr’s followers for the violence.

“This is a conspiracy against the Iraqi people, targeting all of Iraq,” Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib said during a briefing Thursday. “Who will benefit from this? Who will benefit from targeting these holy places?”

Calls rang out across the Muslim world Thursday to end the fighting. Egypt urged the coalition to rely on dialogue instead of force, and Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the international community should intervene to “prevent the massacre of defenseless Iraqi people.”

In other developments:

– The Iraqi government announced that its delayed national conference, considered a critical first step toward democracy, would begin Sunday. The three-day meeting of 1,000 Iraqis was to select an interim assembly to help shepherd the country toward elections scheduled for January.

– A militant group in Iraq said it has seized a group of Arab truck drivers transporting electrical supplies and other equipment to U.S. forces here, according to video shown early Friday on the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera television station. The authenticity of the videotape could not be verified immediately.

AP-ES-08-13-04 0040EDT

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