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Coalition targets Mehdi Army in Iraq

U.S. officer likens Najaf region to hornets' nest
U.S. soldiers take over the governor's office in Najaf on Thursday.
A suicide attacker detonates a car bomb outside the U.S.-led coalition's headquarters in Baghdad.

Iraqi insurgents in Diwaniyah kill three U.S. soldiers, sparking an intense military offensive in the area.

President Bush reaches out to an Arab world angry over Iraqi prisoner abuse.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is under fire over prisoner abuse scandal.
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
Muqtada al-Sadr

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Coalition forces battled Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia on Thursday in the militant Shiite cleric's strongholds of Karbala, Najaf and Kufa.

U.S. soldiers with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment fought with insurgents after moving into the Shiite holy city of Najaf and taking over the provincial governor's office.

The soldiers took over the office without any resistance, but insurgents in nearby alleys and on rooftops later fired at them.

Troops fought the Mehdi Army elsewhere in the Najaf region, and more than 20 insurgents were killed in the firefights. The main engagement took place in the Kufa area.

U.S., Polish and Iraqi security forces are working to help Iraqi allies re-establish control in southern Iraqi cities, where the Mehdi Army has an armed presence.

In Karbala, a routine coalition patrol killed six insurgents when it was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades.

U.S. troops have massed outside Najaf in recent weeks following the uprising by the Mehdi Army, but they had not entered the town.

Al-Sadr, who is wanted by an Iraqi court in connection with the killing of a rival cleric, is believed to be holed up in Najaf.

Lt. Col. Pat White said coalition forces had to cross the Najaf city limits to take the governor's office. "We're now operating in a territory where the Mehdi Army is not used to us being," he said.

Asked about the firing heard in and around the governor's compound, White said: "What we are seeing is their reaction to us on their turf."

Throughout Kufa and Najaf, White said, "In general, I guess I'd liken it to a bees' or a hornets' nest."

The operation came as the coalition announced the selection of a new provincial governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, who will occupy the office the military seized.

A previous governor left office after he was arrested on corruption-related charges.

The sprawling province extends from Najaf and nearby Kufa in the north to the border with Saudi Arabia.

Najaf is the site of the Imam Ali mosque, one of the Shiites' most holy sites.

Violence rips Baghdad

A suicide car bombing killed at least five Iraqis and a U.S. soldier early Thursday near Baghdad's Green Zone -- the latest in a series of bloody attacks in the Iraqi capital over the past 24 hours.

An Iraqi police official said the car exploded while the driver was waiting in line at a checkpoint into the Green Zone, the area that contains the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Twenty-five people, including two U.S. soldiers, were wounded. The death count does not include the bomber.

A senior coalition military official said the bomb contained artillery shells to make the blast deadlier.

A group called the Unified and Jihad in Iraq claimed responsibility for the bombing in a statement on an Islamic Web site that publishes statements issued by al Qaeda.

The group calls suspected insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi its emir. Zarqawi, who has links to al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for many attacks.

Hours later, a roadside bomb exploded at Al Nasser square in Baghdad, wounding two Iraqis.

Elsewhere in the city, two Task Force Baghdad soldiers were killed and two were wounded by improvised bomb just before midnight Wednesday.

The deaths brought the number of U.S. troops killed since the war started to 769 -- 561 of them in hostile action.

Other developments

  • The Arabic-language Al-Arabiya television network broadcast video of an American hostage in Iraq who identified himself as Aban Elias. Elias' brother said Aban Elias is a U.S. citizen who was born in Iraq and had moved back to the country to work on road projects. (Full story)
  • In Kirkuk, Najuib Mohamed, the town's director of agriculture, and his driver were shot to death Thursday, police said. Mohamed's wife was wounded.
  • U.S. soldiers in Baghdad's Sadr City killed 10 suspected insurgents who attacked a convoy, a senior military official said.
  • President Bush said Thursday he told visiting King Abdullah II of Jordan he is "sorry for the humiliation suffered" by Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. troops in Iraq. Bush said he told Abdullah that photos of the abuse broadcast last week made him and others "sick to our stomachs." (Full story)
  • Calling it a "high priority," Bush asked Congress for an additional $25 billion Wednesday to cover military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Full story)
  • The Senate Thursday overwhelmingly confirmed John Negroponte as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, clearing him to run the world's largest U.S. Embassy after the scheduled handover of sovereignty June 30. The vote was 95-3 to confirm Negroponte, currently the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
  • The U.N.'s top human rights envoy is preparing a report on human rights in Iraq, including the treatment of civilians and prisoners. The report will cover the period from April 2003 to May 2004. The report will also cover the military and security situation in Iraq, including terrorism, the situation of women and children, religious freedom and civil and political rights.
  • CNN's Jane Arraf in Najaf and Mike Mount in Washington contributed to this report.

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