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NAJAF, Iraq (AP) -- U.S.-led forces launched their biggest assault yet against militiamen loyal to a radical Shiite cleric, raiding hideouts in several cities Wednesday and clashing with gunmen in the world's biggest cemetery. At least 15 Iraqis and a U.S. soldier were killed.
Moderate Shiites tried to persuade anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to back away from his confrontation with the United States -- a reflection of their growing concern.
Skirmishes between U.S. troops and al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army militia have grown deadlier recently as the military steps up pressure on the cleric while trying to avoid an offensive in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
"The operation will continue until the goal of eliminating and disarming al-Sadr's militia is met," Polish forces spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Strzelecki said. "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 Shiites behind al-Sadr.
Iraqi Governing Council member Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum delivered a message to al-Sadr from a group of influential Shiites calling on his militia to disarm and leave Najaf, council member Raja Habib Al-Khuzaai told The Associated Press.
The message from the group -- made up of about 500 Shiites, including local council members, tribal officials and others -- represented the most public effort by Shiite leaders to push al-Sadr into making concessions to end the standoff, which began when his militia launched an uprising in early April.
Meanwhile, the director of Abu Ghraib prison promised to open the facility to the international Red Cross and the Iraqi Interior and Human Rights ministries amid an outcry over abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller also apologized for the "illegal or unauthorized acts" committed by a "small number of our soldiers" at Abu Ghraib, where photographs showed stripped and hooded Iraqis being abused by U.S. guards.
President Bush went on two Arabic-language TV stations to try to assuage outrage across the Middle East over the abuse. Bush condemned the prisoners' treatment as "abhorrent" and pledged that those found guilty "will be brought to justice" -- but stopped short of an apology.
The heaviest fighting in the south came in the holy city of Karbala, where coalition forces raided a hotel, the local former Baath Party headquarters and the regional governor's office in search of stockpiled weapons, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.
In the overnight raid on the governor's office, troops came under fire, Kimmitt said in Baghdad. He said 10 al-Sadr followers were killed.
The U.S. soldier died when a dump truck tried to ram a checkpoint in Karbala, the military said. He was the 20th U.S. serviceman killed in Iraq in May.
Outside the city of Kufa, U.S. forces attacked a van where Iraqis were seen unloading weapons. The vehicle was destroyed and five Iraqis were killed, Kimmitt said.
In Najaf, U.S. troops battled al-Mahdi Army fighters outside a cemetery near the Imam Ali Shrine, Iraq's holiest Shiite site. The soldiers opened fire with machine guns on militiamen who had ambushed them.
More than 50 militiamen took part in the fighting in Najaf's sprawling cemetery, ambushing three U.S. Humvees. As the Americans returned fire, mourners who had come to bury their dead ran for safety.
"American forces tried to enter Najaf from Najaf Lake, but they were repelled by the al-Mahdi Army which forced them to flee," said a militia official, Mushtaq al-Khafaji. He said no militiamen were hurt.
The Army says al-Sadr's militiamen are hiding weapons in the cemetery, the world's largest with 5 million graves. One Najaf resident said he saw stocks of rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons stored in his family plot, but when he returned later the arms were gone.
Coalition troops also raided and occupied al-Sadr's office in Diwaniyah, an operation to "reduce militia influence in the city," Kimmitt said. The troops were fired on from a vehicle, which was destroyed. Coalition forces found rocket-propelled grenades and mortars in a nearby school.
The military has said they will avoid the Imam Ali Shrine and other holy sites in Najaf and Karbala. Shiite leaders have warned that offensives near the shrines would spark Shiite anger -- and even turn the revolt by al-Sadr followers into a wider uprising by Iraq's majority Shiites.
The statement drawn up Tuesday by the 500 prominent Shiites reflected increasing concern over the standoff ahead of the installation of a new Iraqi government on June 30.
"We demanded in our statement that arms should be put down, be taken out of school, mosques and holy places. We also asked (al-Sadr) to get out of the holy city of Najaf," Governing Council member al-Khuzaai said. "Our aim is to solve the problem in Najaf and spare its people any evil."
Another group of Najaf leaders said U.S. officials rejected their proposals for resolving the standoff. The group is pushing a plan under which U.S. forces and al-Sadr's fighters would leave the city, and al-Sadr would escape prosecution on charges he ordered a rival cleric slain last year.
U.S. officials have insisted al-Sadr face the murder charges.
In Fallujah, west of Baghdad, the U.S. military distributed leaflets Wednesday inviting residents to apply for compensation for damage done during the Marine siege in April. The military also promised to clean up the streets, improve water facilities and rebuild schools and mosques.
Marines have been turning over responsibility for the city to a new force made up of former members of the Iraqi army.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)