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Coalition estimates 50 killed in Iraqi cleric's militia

Al-Sadr proposes partial withdrawal from Najaf, official says

Prime Minister Tony Blair says British troops will stay in Iraq until the job is done.

President Bush seeks international support for a new U.N. resolution.

U.S. forces deny any role in damage to a Najaf shrine.
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
Iraqi Governing Council
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S.-led coalition forces killed about 50 members of a radical cleric's militia in overnight battles in the south-central Iraqi city of Najaf, a senior coalition official said Wednesday.

Another 20 fighters with the cleric's Mehdi Army died in overnight clashes with coalition troops in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, the official said.

The fighters are loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite Muslim cleric who is wanted in last year's killing of a rival, Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei.

U.S.-led forces also captured a prominent al-Sadr aide, according to American military officials and a spokesman in the cleric's office.

Riyad al-Nori -- one of several al-Sadr supporters accused in the ayatollah's assassination -- was arrested overnight at his house as U.S. Army forces carried out a series of raids in Najaf, officials said. (Full story)

U.S. forces also raided the house of Fo'ad al-Tofi -- an official spokesman for al-Sadr -- but he was not there at the time. Three of al-Tofi's brothers were taken into custody and were being held at a U.S. base, officials said.

Shortly after the raids, a U.S. C-130 aircraft fired on militia members who were shooting at U.S. troops, military officials said.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a coalition spokesman, described those killed overnight as "a very large number of probably wayward youths that were somehow convinced, corrupted, connived by persons such as Muqtada al-Sadr into picking up weapons against the coalition and against their fellow Iraqis."

Kimmitt said the coalition is chipping away at al-Sadr's militia and won't stop until the cleric is arrested in al-Khoei's killing. The Medhi Army must also be disbanded, he said.

"Al-Sadr certainly has less forces than he did yesterday," Kimmitt said.

Al-Sadr has proposed a partial withdrawal of fighters from Najaf and the turnover of government buildings to Iraqi police, according to national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie.

In exchange, al-Sadr said he wants the majority of coalition forces to leave the holy city, followed by a "broad discussion" about the future of his Mehdi Army in Iraq, al-Rubaie said.

Al-Rubaie, a Shiite, said the proposal was "a very, very good basis" for negotiations. Al-Sadr made his offer in a letter to Najaf's Shiite clerical hierarchy, according to al-Rubaie.

Russians killed

Two Russian civilian contractors were killed and five wounded Wednesday after gunmen opened fire on their bus south of Baghdad, according to a hospital official and the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Of the five wounded contractors, two were hurt critically, a hospital official said. Several Iraqis were killed in the attack, the Russian ministry said.

The attack comes a little more than two weeks after another contractor from the company, InterEnergoServis, was gunned down in the same area.

Wednesday's attack happened as the bus, under Iraqi police protection, approached the Dora power station, where the Russian firm is based, said Alexander Rybinsky, the company's chief executive officer. (Full story)

In other violence, a roadside bomb ripped through an Iraqi police vehicle Wednesday morning north of Baghdad, killing two police officers and wounding five others, a Ba'qubah police official said.

U.N. debates handover

The U.N. Security Council continued Wednesday to debate language in a resolution setting up a new government and security structure for Iraq.

China offered a plan that could lead to the departure of foreign troops after elections in January. Under the proposal, troops from the United States and other countries could stay only if the newly elected government asked them to remain.

A resolution draft offered by the United States and Britain sets no deadline, saying only that the force would be open to review after one year. That leaves open the possibility that any proposal to withdraw troops could be vetoed by either country.

Emerging from Wednesday's meeting, French U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere said some countries on the Security Council think the Anglo-American language in the resolution is "not enough."

"Some members think that the mandate of the multinational force should end with, or should be related to, the election of the elected government," Sabliere said.

"There is another idea. It would be to have a limited duration -- let's say, for example, 12 months -- provided the elected government should be able to decide if it wants to maintain the multinational force or revise the mandate."

U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, nominated by President Bush to be the new American ambassador in Baghdad, declined comment on the Chinese proposal, saying he had not seen it.

He noted, however, that the U.S.-British draft would allow the newly elected government to ask the Security Council to review the troop deployment at any time.

British and American officials have said that if an Iraqi government asked them to withdraw troops, they would do so.

Other developments

  • Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, former commander of military police at U.S. prisons in Iraq, said she does not know why she was suspended and insists the Army was aware of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison months before it launched an investigation. (Full story)
  • An artillery round used in a roadside bomb in Baghdad did contain the nerve agent sarin as originally thought, U.S. officials said Tuesday. Laboratory tests confirmed initial field tests that suggested the chemical agent was in the round, which was found May 15 and exploded two days later. (Full story)
  • The human rights group Amnesty International criticized the Bush administration Wednesday, saying it has sacrificed human rights in blind pursuit of security, according to Reuters. The group called the administration's anti-terror policies "bankrupt of vision," citing what it called unlawful killings of Iraqi civilians, the questionable arrest and mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Afghanistan, and opposition to a new global criminal court. (Full story)
  • Hussain Shahristani, a nuclear scientist and Shiite who had been proposed as a favorite for a top job in the interim government, does not want it, a spokesman said on behalf of U.N. envoy Lakhtar Brahimi, who is working with Iraqis to pick the top interim officials.
  • Retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks, former head of U.S. Central Command, received an honorary knighthood Tuesday from British Secretary of Defense Geoff Hoon. (Full story)
  • The U.S. State Department may recommend raising the reward for the arrest of suspected terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from $10 million to $25 million, officials said Tuesday. U.S. officials have said that al-Zarqawi has links to al Qaeda and that he has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks on U.S. troops, Iraqis and others.
  • CNN's Jane Arraf, David Ensor, Elise Labott, Liz Neisloss and Guy Raz contributed to this report.

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