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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. troops fought militiamen overnight near Najaf, killing 64 gunmen and destroying an anti-aircraft gun. An American soldier was killed Tuesday in Baghdad, raising the U.S. death toll for April to 115 -- the same number lost during the entire invasion of Iraq last year.
The battle outside Najaf was one of the heaviest with the militia as U.S. troops try to increase the pressure on gunmen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. U.S. troops moved into a base in Najaf that Spanish troops are abandoning, but promised to stay away from the sensitive Shiite shrines at the heart of the southern city.
As the United Nations prepares to discuss the form of a caretaker government due to take power June 30, U.S.-appointed Iraqi leaders complained that the administration won't have real sovereignty as promised by American administrators for months.
"I think the sovereignty will be weak and not complete," said Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Governing Council. For "the security situation, there will still be the United States," he said.
He also expressed worries there will be limits as to what laws it can pass. If the government can't make laws or provide security "it will not be real sovereignty," he said. "The less sovereignty there is, the less the possibility that the government will be able to work and achieve its tasks."
U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has proposed that the Governing Council be dissolved and caretaker government made up of nonpartisan experts be created to run Iraq until elections in January. Washington has said that since Iraqi security forces are still not able to fight insurgents, U.S. forces will hold security powers even after the handover.
Also Tuesday, a Red Cross team visited Saddam Hussein to see his conditions in U.S. custody, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said, but he refused to say where the visit took place. It was the first since the Red Cross visited the ousted Iraqi leader in February.
The battles in the south Monday evening took place on the east side of the Euphrates River, across from Kufa and Najaf, Kimmitt said. According to a list of Iraqi casualties from the fight at both of Najaf's hospitals, almost all the dead were young men of fighting age, suggesting they may have been militiamen.
The first came in the afternoon, when Shiite militiamen opened fire on a U.S. patrol, and seven insurgents were killed. Hours later, a M1 tank was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, triggering a heavy battle in which warplanes destroyed an anti-aircraft gun belonging to the militia, and 57 gunmen were killed, Kimmitt said.
Night video taken by the Associated Press Television News between Najaf and the nearby town of Kufa showed U.S. army helicopters flying low over smoke rising from an area in the distance amid flashes of gunfire.
In Fallujah, Marines pressed ahead with plans to send patrols into the city alongside Iraqi security forces, despite a bloody battle Monday with Sunni insurgents at a mosque. Blue-shirted Iraqi police crept through an abandoned warehouse district, training guns on empty doorways and rooftops as part of U.S. Marine-led preparations for the patrols Thursday.
One Marine was killed Monday, and tank fire toppled the mosque's minaret, which commanders said was being used by gunmen. The violence, in which eight Iraqi insurgents were killed, tested the U.S. decision to continue a political track in resolving the Fallujah standoff.
On Sunday, the United States backed down from threats to launch a full-scale assault, instead announcing it was extending a fragile cease-fire and would start the patrols.
The battle north of Najaf broke out Monday night and lasted several hours, with helicopter gunships called in for support, a military spokesman said.
An al-Sadr aide in Najaf, Mustaq al-Khafaji, accused Americans of trying to advance toward Kufa. "We will face the Americans whenever they show up," he said.
U.S. authorities have vowed to capture al-Sadr and uproot his militia, the al-Mahdi Army, which launched a bloody uprising at the beginning of April. Al-Mahdi gunmen still dominate Najaf, Kufa and Karbala -- although fewer were seen on the streets in Najaf and Kufa Tuesday.
About 2,000 troops are deployed outside Najaf, but the military is having to tread carefully. Any action that even brings the possibility of harm to the sacred Imam Ali Shrine at its heart could turn the limited al-Sadr revolt into a widespread uprising by Iraq's Shiite majority.
Top administrator L. Paul Bremer heightened warnings about the reported stockpiling of weapons in "mosques, shrines and schools" in Najaf.
"The coalition certainly will not tolerate this situation," Bremer said in a statement to residents of Najaf. "The restoration of these holy places to calm places of worship must begin immediately."
Bremer's spokesman, Dan Senor, would not elaborate on what action would be taken and noted that "those places of worship are not protected under the Geneva Convention" if they are used to store weapons.
About 200 soldiers on Monday moved into a base that Spanish forces are abandoning in the modern part of the Kufa-Najaf urban area, three miles from the shrine. Al-Sadr's office is next to the shrine.
In Madrid, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Spain has completed the withdrawal of its troops, recalling his campaign pledge to bring them home unless the United Nations took military and political control of the occupation.
"We should not have gone to Iraq. Therefore, we had to return as soon as possible," Zapatero said, drawing applause in Parliament.
The Baghdad attack Tuesday killed a U.S. soldier and wounded another in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, a stronghold of al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army militia, Kimmitt told reporters.
The death brought to 115 the number of U.S. troops killed in combat in the past 27 days -- the same number of Americans killed during the two-month invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam.
Meanwhile, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said his country's troops were "not prepared" for the kind of fighting they are doing in Iraq and need "immediate and substantial military backup" from the coalition.
Speaking in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia after a visit to the 485-member contingent Sunday near Karbala, Parvanov said he wants the troops be relocated to a new camp outside Karbala by June 30. Karbala has been the scene of recent heavy fighting by al-Sadr's followers.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday Britain has no plans to send more troops to Iraq.
"The advice that we have now is that we have sufficient troops to do the job," Blair said at a news conference. Britain currently has 7,500 troops in southern Iraq.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)