"Forty-three anti-coalition forces were killed and an anti-coalition anti-aircraft system was destroyed" by an AC-130 aircraft at about 9:45 pm Monday, April 26, an occupation spokeswoman was quotred as saying by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
An AFP correspondent reported late Monday that fighting broke out between U.S. troops and Iraqi militiamen loyal to firebrand Shiite scholar Moqtada Sadr at an entrance to the southern city of Kufa, about 10 kilometers from An-Najaf.
Heavy gunfire and the sound of mortar explosions were heard, the correspondent added.
A member of Sadr’s Mehdi Army told the correspondent the militia had clashed with a U.S. Army unit at the northern entrance of Kufa, about 160 kilometers south of Baghdad.
At around 1:00 am Tuesday, the clashes subsided and the firing became intermittent, according to the AFP correspondent.
"The clashes … are a provocation, but the red line has still not yet been crossed," Qais al-Khazaali, Sadr’s spokesman told Aljazeera television.
"To enter An-Najaf means to pour scorn on the Muslim holy places whether they are Sunni or Shiite. But we are ready, we are organized and we are coordinated."
Sadr threatened Friday, April 23, his followers would "resort to martyr operations" if U.S. occupation forces storm Shiite holy cities, including An-Najaf.
Iraqi eyewitnesses and hospital sources, however, told the Qatar-based broadcaster that most of the dead were civilians whose houses and farms were razed by U.S. aircraft and firepower that do not distinguish a resistance fighter from a civilian.
"We thank (U.S. President George W.) Bush for this democracy he brought to us," said an unnamed Iraqi man on Aljazeera while pointing to his destroyed house.
According to Aljazeera correspondent in An-Najaf, the U.S. forces still do not want to try to force their way into the holy city – not to further provoke Iraq’s Shiites.
"The U.S. occupation forces are trying to lure Sadr fighters into confrontations at the outskirts of An-Najaf. They also use their military planes in pounding the city from air, trying to inflict the heaviest damage and casualty possible," he added.
An-Najaf residents told Aljazeera the U.S. forces are using all kinds of weapons against them, including cluster bombs, "in a bid to terrorize resistance fighters and force civilians to cooperate with the occupation. This is collective punishment".
Hospital sources, quoted by the Qatar-based television, said most of the casualties passed away mainly because of the lack of medical treatment.
"The U.S. forces control the city’s main hospital and several times we tried to take injured people there for treatment, but they refuse to let us in, leaving people to bleed to death," they charged.
One hospital official put the initial number of the killed on the Iraqi side at twenty-eight plus 32 others wounded, according to AFP.
"Twenty-three bodies are in the Furat Awsat hospital in (nearby) Kufa where nine wounded people have been admitted and five other bodies were taken to the Hai hospital of An-Najaf along with 23 wounded," said Muhammad Abdel Kadhem, a member of the Hai hospital staff.
But he added that many bodies had not yet been retrieved from the battle scene.
He indicated that a motorist who said he had been injured by shots fired by Spanish soldiers was also admitted to the An-Najaf hospital.
Spanish Troops Quit
In a separately-related development, Spanish troops in the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq have completed their withdrawal from An-Najaf, a military spokesman told AFP Tuesday.
The troops have withdrawn to Diwaniyah, headquarters for the 1,432-strong Spanish contingent which is due to leave Iraq in the coming days, he added.
They have been replaced in An-Najaf by U.S. forces.