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US raids target Sadr loyalists

Shi'ite moderates try to sway cleric

NAJAF, Iraq -- US-led forces launched their biggest assault yet against militiamen loyal to a radical Shi'ite cleric, raiding hideouts in several cities yesterday and clashing with gunmen in the world's biggest cemetery. At least 15 Iraqis and a US soldier were killed.

Moderate Shi'ites tried to persuade anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to back away from his confrontation with the United States -- a reflection of their growing concern.

Skirmishes between US troops and Sadr's Mahdi Army have grown deadlier recently as the military steps up pressure on the cleric while trying to avoid an offensive in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf.

''The operation will continue until the goal of eliminating and disarming al-Sadr's militia is met," said Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strzelecki, a spokesman for Polish forces. ''I think that will take place soon."

The militiamen also have increased attacks, apparently to push the United States into negotiations or goad it into an offensive that could rally other Shi'ites behind al-Sadr.

Iraqi Governing Council member Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum delivered a message to Sadr from a group of influential Shi'ites calling on his militia to disarm and leave Najaf, council member Raja Habib al-Khuzaai said.

The message from the group -- made up of about 500 Shi'ites, including local council members, tribal officials and others -- represented the most public effort by Shi'ite leaders to push Sadr into making concessions to end the standoff, which began when his militia launched an uprising in early April.

The heaviest fighting in the south -- part of the military's Operation Iron Saber -- came in the holy city of Karbala, where coalition forces raided a hotel, the local former Ba'ath Party headquarters, and the regional governor's office, where Sadr fighters had been stockpiling weapons, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said.

In the overnight raid on the governor's office, troops came under fire, Kimmitt said in Baghdad. He said 10 Sadr followers were killed.

The US soldier died when a dump truck tried to ram a checkpoint in Karbala, the military said. He was the 20th US serviceman killed in Iraq in May.

In Najaf, US troops battled Mahdi Army fighters outside a cemetery near the Imam Ali Shrine, Iraq's holiest Shi'ite site.

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