BAGHDAD — U.S.-backed Iraqi troops yesterday attacked insurgents reportedly plotting to kill pilgrims at a major Shi’ite Muslim religious festival, and Iraqi officials estimated that about 250 militants died in the daylong battle near Najaf. A U.S. helicopter crashed during the fight, killing two American soldiers.
Authorities said Iraqi soldiers supported by U.S. aircraft fought all day with a large group of insurgents in the Zarqa area, about 12 miles northeast of Najaf, home to major Shi’ite shrines.
Col. Ali Nomas, spokesman for Iraqi security forces in Najaf, said more than 250 corpses had been found. Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi also spoke of 250 dead but said an exact number would not be released until today. He said 10 gunmen had been captured, including one Sudanese.
In other violence yesterday, mortar shells hit the courtyard of a girls school in a mostly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Baghdad, killing five students and wounding 20. Two car bombs exploded within a half-hour in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing 11 persons and wounding 34.
In addition to confirming the two American deaths in the helicopter crash, the U.S. command announced three combat deaths from Saturday — one Marine in Anbar province and two soldiers in the Baghdad area.
Provincial Gov. Assad Sultan Abu Kilel said the assault in Najaf was staged because the insurgents planned to attack Shi’ite pilgrims and clerics during ceremonies marking Ashoura, the holiest day in the Shi’ite calendar. The celebration culminates tomorrow in huge public processions in Karbala and other Shi’ite cities.
Officials were not clear about the religious affiliation of the militants. Although Sunni Arabs have been the main force behind insurgent groups, several Shi’ite militant and splinter groups have clashed from time to time with the government.
The governor said Iraqi soldiers attacked at dawn and militants hiding in orchards fought back with automatic weapons, sniper rifles and rockets. He said the insurgents were members of a previously unknown group called the Army of Heaven.
“They are well-equipped, and they even have anti-aircraft missiles,” the governor said. “They are backed by some locals” loyal to Saddam Hussein, the ousted dictator who was executed last month.
Mr. Abu Kilel said two Iraqi policemen were killed and 15 were wounded, but there was no word on other Iraqi government casualties.
A U.S. statement said the American helicopter went down while “conducting operations to assist Iraqi Security Forces” in the attack. It said that two crew members died and that their bodies were recovered. The statement did not say why the aircraft crashed.
It was the second U.S. military helicopter to go down in eight days. Twelve U.S. soldiers died Jan. 20 when a Black Hawk crashed northeast of Baghdad. The Army says it is investigating the cause, but a Pentagon official has said debris indicated the helicopter was downed by a missile.
The mortar attack in Baghdad occurred about 11 a.m. at the Kholoud Secondary School in the Adil neighborhood, police and school officials said. The principal, Fawzyaa Hatrosh Sawadi, said students were mingling in the courtyard during a break in exams when at least two shells exploded.
The blasts shattered windows in classrooms, spraying students with shards of glass. Associated Press Television News footage showed pools of blood on the stone steps and walkways. A fin from a mortar shell lay on the ground.
Hours after the attack, grieving parents wept as the bodies of their children were placed in wooden coffins. Police said four of the girls were killed instantly and a fifth died later.
In a joint statement, UNICEF and UNESCO called the attack “yet another tragic reminder of the risks facing Iraq’s schoolchildren.”
No group took responsibility for the attack, but a Sunni organization, the General Conference of the People of Iraq, blamed Shi’ite Muslim militias with ties to government security forces. The Sunni group said the mortar shells bore markings indicating they were manufactured in Iran, which U.S. officials accuse of supporting Shi’ite militias.