BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi and U.S. forces killed several hundred fighters apparently planning to attack a Shiite Muslim shrine in the holy city of Najaf yesterday during a daylong battle in which a U.S. helicopter crashed, killing two U.S. troops, Iraqi security officials said.
The fighting, on the eve of the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura, came as a mortar attack killed five teenage girls at a school in Baghdad and the daily civilian death toll nationwide again climbed past 100.
Iraqi security officials offered conflicting accounts of the identity and motives of the heavily armed fighters in Najaf, variously describing them as foreign fighters, Sunni Arab nationalists, loyalists of executed former dictator Saddam Hussein or followers of a messianic Shiite death cult. Some witnesses reported that the attackers wore colorful Afghan tribal robes.
The cause of the helicopter crash in Najaf was unclear, but U.S. and Iraqi officials said it was felled by fire from the ground, and witnesses said they saw it shot out of the sky. It was the third helicopter to go down in eight days.
Three other U.S. troops were reported killed yesterday. At least 113 Iraqis were killed or found dead.
Yesterday's fighting in Najaf and elsewhere was extraordinary, even by Iraq's bloody standards, highlighting the daunting challenge faced by U.S. and Iraqi forces, which are fighting a complex patchwork of elusive enemies, including Shiite militias and Sunni Arab insurgents.
Iraqi security forces took authority over Najaf's security about a month ago. But witnesses and security officials said yesterday that Iraqi forces were being beaten by the enigmatic but well-organized fighters until U.S. forces and air support arrived.
Ali Nomas, an Iraqi security official in Najaf, said the fighters belonged to a group calling itself Heaven's Army - one among several messianic cults that have appeared among Shiites. Nomas said the information came from interviews with detained fighters.
Louise Roug and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.