FRESH fighting broke out in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf today hours after radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a truce to be restored.
United States helicopter gunships pounded militia in the Shia stronghold for a second day.
At least 20 Iraqis and a US soldier died in clashes yesterday, and a US helicopter was shot down, injuring two.
Al-Sadr’s spokesman said earlier that the cleric wanted to renew the truce in the holy city agreed with US troops in June.
That deal came after al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia of mainly Shia Muslims began fighting US forces in April.
Al-Sadr’s spokesman, Ahmed al-Shaibany, said: "Sadr announced that we are committed to the truce and that [US] forces must honour the truce."
Al-Sadr had set a midnight deadline for the end of fighting and restoration of the cease-fire. If US forces did not agree, "then the firing and igniting of the revolution will continue", he said.
The clashes mark the worst flare-up in fighting between the two sides in months. Assailants and militiamen loyal to al-Sadr wounded 15 American troops in four separate attacks in Baghdad.
US helicopters today attacked militants hiding in a cemetery near the Imam Ali Shrine in the old city at Najaf’s centre.
Gunfire and explosions rang out as US soldiers and Iraqi policemen advanced towards the area. The streets were otherwise deserted and shops were closed.
In Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, guerrillas attacked a convoy of ten US Humvees at dawn, witnesses said.
US helicopters fired rockets at insurgent positions, and the US convoy pulled out of the city. At least two people were killed and 16 injured during the fighting.
In one attack in eastern Baghdad yesterday, assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at American soldiers "while they were inspecting a civil military project aimed at improving living conditions" in the Sadr City area. In the north-east of the city, insurgents attacked a US patrol, wounding two soldiers.
"We are deeply disappointed that the Mahdi militia has brought fighting back to the good people of Sadr City," said Colonel Robert Arams, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team. "We have worked tirelessly to restore essential services to the city and these attacks hamper our efforts."
Tension has been building in Najaf in recent days and fighting finally erupted yesterday morning.
The governor of Najaf requested back-up from US marines yesterday after the main police station was attacked, the US military said, but a spokesman for al-Sadr said US forces and Iraqi police had attacked first. During the fighting, a US helicopter was hit and forced to make an emergency landing, the military said. The injured crew was evacuated to safety. Meanwhile, one US soldier was killed and five others wounded in an ambush on a convoy outside the city yesterday.
In Basra, at least two Mahdi Army members were killed in a 15-minute gunfight with UK troops.
A local al-Sadr spokesman, Sheikh Saad al-Basri, said the militia would fight a jihad against "foreign troops" and any Iraqi security forces who backed them after four men were arrested by the British.
Al-Sadr launched an uprising against US forces in early April after the occupation government closed his newspaper, arrested a top aide and issued an arrest warrant for him for the alleged 2003 murder of a rival cleric. Hundreds died in nearly eight weeks of fighting.
Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is on his way to London, where he is expected to receive treatment for a heart condition. Al-Sistani, 73, arrived in Beirut on a chartered jet from Iraq and departed on a scheduled flight for London.