NAJAF, Iraq — As another day of fighting killed nearly 40 Iraqis in southern Iraq, U.S. military leaders Thursday raised the possibility of using Iraqi police forces to forcibly enter shrines where they believe militants have taken refuge.
Military patrols have been battling daily with militants believed affiliated with Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose private militia seized key parts of the holy cities of Najaf and Kufa in April, occupying mosques and police stations.
Sadr's militia controls the Kufa mosque and the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, two of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. Army commanders in the area have been ordered not to fire directly at the mosques.
"We can't have American boots on the ground in those sites," said Lt. Col. Pat White, commander of the U.S. base near Kufa. "But when Iraqi security forces are ready, they could deny insurgents use of the facilities."
The commander of the 1st Armored Division, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, said such an assault could happen in as few as two weeks if Iraqi security forces from elsewhere are deployed.
Only 60 Iraqi police officers are working in Najaf.
At the same time, commanders are also preparing to pull back their forces if Sadr's fighters leave the city.
Despite ongoing talks since May 27 to implement a proposed cease-fire agreement, fighting has continued with each side blaming the other.
U.S. bases in the two cities continue to come under mortar attack. In response, American soldiers have sent lines of tanks and Humvees into the cities, searching for weapons and the places from which Sadr's militia launches its attacks.
On Thursday, four American soldiers were injured during an early morning operation that involved about 100 soldiers and at least seven tanks. Four Iraqis were captured during the raid on a school believed to be used as a launching base for mortar attacks, White said.
Soldiers seized numerous large-caliber mortar shells, rocket-propelled-grenade launchers and rifles during the raid. White, who questioned the captured Iraqis, said they were just guards and would be released.
Later in the evening, U.S. tanks patrolled past the Najaf cemetery, killing an Iraqi who fired upon the convoy, military officials said. All told, nearly 40 Iraqis were killed in clashes in Najaf and Kufa on Thursday.
More than 100 Iraqi fighters and two American soldiers have been killed in Kufa since Sunday, according to military reports.
In Baghdad, a mortar attack apparently aimed at the Italian Embassy killed one Iraqi and injured six others, Iraqi police said. Seven mortar shells exploded near homes and shops beside the embassy, killing a man who was washing his car, witnesses said.
None of the shells landed in the embassy compound or injured embassy staff, officials said.
A man with a bloodstained shirt and pants said he had rushed one victim to the hospital. "I was in my shop when I heard random explosions," said Nabil Hamudi, a glass cutter. "One man at the restaurant almost died, and the guy who was washing his Volkswagen was hit on his head. He died."
The attack came as President Bush was preparing to meet today and Saturday with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome.
Insurgents in Iraq have repeatedly targeted Italians in Iraq, striking the embassy grounds last month and another diplomatic mission last November. Italy supported the U.S.-led invasion and sent about 2,700 troops to assist in rebuilding.
Times staff writer Monte Morin in Baghdad contributed to this report.