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U.S. Marines take command of troops in Najaf

Cleric vows to continue fighting multinational forces

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Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr says he will fight till the end in Najaf.

Iraq's interim prime minister makes a surprise visit to Najaf.

Fighting in Najaf may be the worst since Saddam Hussein's fall.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Marines have taken over as the lead multinational force in the holy city of Najaf, where radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr vowed Monday to fight American troops to the death.

Members of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia are holed up in the city's Imam Ali Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.

"I will keep on resisting, and I am staying in Najaf and won't leave it till the last day of my life," al-Sadr said. "My stay is to defend Najaf, the holiest place."

U.S. officials have accused al-Sadr of fomenting unrest. He is wanted in connection with the killing of a rival cleric last year.

Meanwhile, the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, gave permission Monday for military operations in the previously restricted area immediately surrounding the Imam Ali Shrine, a spokesman said.

At a briefing Monday afternoon, a senior U.S. commander said al-Zurufi had approved the operations in coordination with the Iraqi National Guard.

The Mehdi Army is operating "contrary to the laws of armed conflict," the commander said, leading the military to view the area as "a legitimate military target."

The decision to order the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit to take over control in Najaf and neighboring Qadisiya from a Polish-led multinational contingent was because of the "deteriorated security situation" in Najaf, the U-S.-led coalition said in a statement.

The Polish-led force retained control in Babil, Karbala and Wasit.

The senior U.S. commander estimated that more than 360 of al-Sadr's fighters have been killed since last week, when the Najaf governor asked the multinational force to put down the uprising.

The commander said an estimated 2,000 militia fighters were in two places: a cemetery and the shrine.

He said the Marines and Iraqi National Guard troops had surrounded the mosque and were sweeping the cemetery in an operation he called "measured and methodical."

The commander said Marines and Iraqi forces were at a "safe distance" from the mosque and did not plan any immediate action.

He said about 2,000 Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and about 1,800 Iraqi National Guardsmen were in the area.

The commander said the Marines were not focusing on al-Sadr and were not involved in any negotiations, saying Iraqis would handle any talks.

The goal is to prevent the rebels from being resupplied and reinforced at the mosque, which they are using as a safe house, the commander said.

Al-Sadr said the situation in Najaf cannot improve until the United States leaves Iraq. "Let us remove the occupation first, then there will be freedom and democracy, but no democracy nor freedom with the occupation," he said.

Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi paid a surprise visit to Najaf on Sunday, calling on the militia fighters to "leave the holy sites quickly, lay down their weapons and return to the rule of order and law."

Allawi said Saturday he believes that the people behind the violence in Najaf are common criminals and foreign forces -- not part of al-Sadr's militia.

The senior U.S. commander said fighting in Najaf was also spurring tensions in Baghdad, where al-Sadr has strong support in the Sadr City neighborhood.

The commander said it appeared that al-Sadr's forces were splintering and not necessarily under his direct control.

The Iraqi government imposed an overnight curfew Monday in Sadr City from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

Other developments

  • The parents of Spc. Keith Matthew Maupin, an Army reservist from Batavia, Ohio, captured April 9 in an attack on a fuel convoy, said Monday they are confident their son "will return with honor." Three American workers for Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root died in the attack, and the body of Sgt. Elmer Krause, another reservist, was found two weeks later. KBR contractor Thomas Hamill was captured but escaped in early May. "We ask that the public continue to keep Matt and all soldiers in their prayers," said a statement from Keith and Carolyn Maupin. Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera reported in June that a militant group claimed to have killed Maupin, but the Pentagon said that could not be verified.
  • A British soldier was killed Monday in a gunbattle with insurgents in the southern city of Basra, according to a spokesman from the British Ministry of Defense. The ministry said initial reports suggested that another four to five British soldiers had been injured. The British military death toll since the start of the Iraq war is now 62. (Full story)
  • Two Iraqi police officers were killed and three others wounded Monday in Baghdad after a mortar attack on the Interior Ministry compound, ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said. Four mortar shells landed inside the compound at about 3 p.m. (7 a.m. ET), he said.
  • A suicide car bombing early Monday -- near the offices of the deputy governor of Diala province in Baquba, north of Baghdad -- killed six people and wounded 27 others, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said. The bomber also died in the attack. Suicide bombings in Baquba during the past two weeks have killed more than 70 people, including four Iraqi National Guard members.
  • Salem Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi war crimes tribunal that will try ousted President Saddam Hussein, said Monday that charges against him and his uncle, Ahmed Chalabi, by an Iraqi investigative judge almost certainly have "something to do with trying to discredit" the tribunal. Salem Chalabi faces an arrest warrant in connection with a murder charge. Ahmed Chalabi, who worked closely with the United States in advance of the Iraq war, faces counterfeiting charges. (Full story)
  • A U.S. Marine was killed in action Sunday in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, the coalition press office said. As of Monday, 932 U.S. troops had died in Iraq since the start of the war, including 694 under hostile circumstances, according to the U.S. military.
  • CNN's Eden Pontz contributed to this report.

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