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Iraqis welcome U.S. troops in Najaf

Najaf residents cheer on U.S. forces during a march Wednesday through the Iraqi city's streets.

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NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqis greeted U.S. troops as they marched Wednesday through Najaf, according to CNN's Ryan Chilcote, who is traveling with the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

The slow procession in 90-degree heat from the south-central Iraq city's outskirts through streets lined with civilians found many U.S. soldiers on edge, said Greg Danilenko, a CNN cameraman. Soldiers were "carrying guns and expecting trouble on every corner," Danilenko said.

Iraqi men, women and children watched as the troops made their way toward Najaf's commercial center.

Coalition troops encountered Iraqis who were initially cautious but ended up chanting along with the troops and shaking their hands, Danilenko said.

Members of the 101st Airborne's 1st Brigade led a convoy to pass on a message from Gen. David Petraeus to the top Muslim cleric at a historic mosque in Najaf. The convoy stalled and never reached the mosque due to some sort of miscommunication, Chilcote said.

U.S. Central Command has said Iraqi troops are using the mosque as a covert base. Iraqi soldiers have taken over the gilded dome of the tomb of Ali -- a landmark venerated by Shiite Muslims as the burial site of the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, these U.S. officials said.

Commanders in the field do not believe that Iraqi soldiers are firing from the mosque, Chilcote said. The soldiers used the mosque only as a sanctuary, running to nearby buildings to fire on U.S. troops, he added.

During the march through Najaf, coalition troops were told to keep a low profile, Danilenko said. Kiowa helicopters flew overhead as the convoy proceeded. A psychological operations soldier in a Humvee with a roof-mounted speaker broadcast in Arabic. Soldiers manning a machine gun mounted on a Humvee spoke Arabic greetings.

The Iraqis wanted "to see what the soldiers were trying to do," Danilenko said. "Most were polite, saying hello or yelling, 'Good, good' or 'Saddam bad. Saddam bad.' "

A crowd of Iraqis surrounded the troops when the convoy stalled.

The gathering swelled to about 100 civilians, many jumping up and down and cheering in a scene of friendly chaos, Danilenko said.

"The Iraqis seemed genuinely to be making contact," he said. "But in a very in-your-face way. It kind of spooked these guys who aren't used to this. The [Iraqis] weren't threatening. They were observing. But it was pretty unnerving, especially to the regular Army guys."

At one point, some civilians sounded upset about bombing heard in the distance. Special Operations soldiers tried to get the bombing to stop, Danilenko said.

After an hour, the troops began heading back to the coalition camp. On the return march, the Iraqis appeared to relax somewhat, Danilenko said.

"I guess the locals saw the Americans were not out to make trouble," he said.

The Iraqis started chanting back the slogans and messages broadcast through the psychological operations Humvee, Danilenko said.

"From then on, guys on street corners would cheer and yell out their support," he said. "From then on, the crowd became very friendly, open."

Despite the civilian reception, coalition forces continue to battle Saddam Fedayeen troops in Najaf.

Late Wednesday, plumes of black smoke rose above the city after U.S. Marines called in a helicopter strike on pickup trucks filled with suspected Fedayeen fighters, Chilcote said. The helicopter assault detonated a number of secondary explosions because the pickups were loaded with mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades, he said.

CNN's Ryan Chilcote and Greg Danilenko contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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