US troops began a determined offensive yesterday designed to tighten the military cordon round more than 1,000 Shia gunmen using the holy sites of Najaf as their base.
As marine units moved to isolate the insurgents loyal to Muqtada Sadr, American troops reportedly stormed the house of the absent radical Shia cleric, believed to be hiding elsewhere in the city.
US forces stopped short of mounting at least for the time being the full-scale ground and air assault some officers had threatened to launch against the insurgents occupying the sacred Imam Ali shrine and the city's ancient cemetery.
But they continued attempts to isolate the Sadr militia from supplies and reinforcements. Sadr, the son of a cleric assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999, has set himself up since April as a rival to moderate Shia leaders by posing as the champion of Iraqi resistance to the US-led occupation.
In the eighth day of heavy fighting in Najaf, mortar and gunfire continued in the Najaf cemetery, wounding at least two American soldiers. The US military says hundreds of gunmen of Sadr's Mehdi Army have died in the fighting.
A column of US tanks lined one edge of the Wadi al-Salam cemetery while snipers crawled on the roofs of nearby one-storey buildings to fire at insurgents, according to an Associated Press reporter embedded with American troops.
In Basra, the country's mainly Shia second city, a British soldier was killed the second within three days and another seriously wounded when a roadside bomb exploded. Marc Ferns, 20, died, and Sergeant Kevin Stacey, 26, was left fighting for his life after an incident that the Ministry of Defence said may have been a deliberate ambush of an Army patrol.
Health ministry officials said five civilians had been killed in Najaf by late afternoon. But this was a fraction of a rapidly increasing death toll as US and Iraqi forces used airpower as well as ground defences in an attempt to suppress a series of uprisings across the country in response to the siege of Najaf, the spiritual centre of Shia Islam.
Easily the worst casualties for a single city in the previous 24 hours were an estimated 72 Iraqis killed in US air attacks and fierce fighting in Kut, 100 miles south-east of Baghdad, after insurgents attacked the city hall, police stations and Iraqi national guard barracks.
But the health ministry said that since Wednesday morning a total of 172 Iraqis had been killed as well as 643 injured. The ministry did not attempt to break down the total between militants and what appeared to be a rapidly growing number of deaths of civilians. The figures included at least 25 killed in Baghdad as fighting spread from the main battleground of Sadr City to half a dozen other districts of the capital.
Amid signs of restiveness in other Muslim capitals over the fighting around Najaf's mosque compound, Egypt urged the US-led coalition to rely on dialogue and the foreign ministry of Iran said the international community should intervene to prevent "the massacre of defenceless Iraqi people". Both Iraqi ministers and coalition governments have previously accused Iran of fuelling the insurgency.
Iraq's most venerated Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who left Najaf for London a week ago on a visit whose timing diplomats and his aides have insisted was determined only by a course of medical treatment for a heart condition, expressed "deep sorrow and great worry" about the fighting.
A statement from his office called for a ceasefire "to preserve the holy sites" and said it was "continuing to exert efforts with all sides, Iraqi officials and others, to put a quick end to the current situation".
The statements underlined a dilemma for US and Iraqi forces undoubtedly aware of the volatile and unpredictable reaction in Iraq and beyond to any "final" military incursion into the holy sites to clear them of gunmen, not least one which could damage the holy Imam Ali shrine itself. The dome of the ancient shrine in Najaf covers the tomb of Imam Ali, considered to be the leader of the Shia, who was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohamed.
The interim Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, denounced the "complete criminality" of the insurgents and repeated earlier calls for them to lay down their arms, adding: "Our brave troops never targeted the sacred holy shrine but the militia have made the site a target by occupying it."
The Interior Minister, Falah al-Naqib, declared that no US soldiers would enter would enter the Imam Ali shrine and stressed that only Iraqi police and national guardsmen would go in there. Several thousand Shias took to the streets in demonstrations in Basra and the Baghdad district of Kadmiah to protest the operations in Najaf.
* The Iraqi interior ministry said it had "no intention" of arresting the former Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi in response to a warrant issued on counterfeiting charges "until finalising legal measures". The Iraqi National Congress, which Mr Chalabi leads, says he has returned to Iraq but will give no details of his whereabouts.
* A militant group calling itself The Master of Martyrs said it had seized a group of Arab truck drivers transporting equipment to US forces, according to a video shown yesterday on al-Jazeera television. The video showed three men, who identified themselves as Osama Moneer Eisa from Syria, and two men from Lebanon, whose names were not audible.