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BAGHDAD — On Shiite Islam’s holiest day, attacks in Iraq on Tuesday killed at least 39 people, and details continued to emerge of a fierce battle in Najaf over the weekend that was tied to a religious pilgrimage.

The deaths came in attacks apparently aimed at Shiite religious ceremonies. One bombing occurred outside a mosque, the other at a religious ceremony near the Iranian border. Tuesday’s attacks followed the fighting in Najaf, in which a group of hundreds of armed men apparently planned to storm the holy city and kill Shiite religious officials.

Tuesday marked the culmination of Ashoura, the commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson. Hussein’s death in the year 680 in the battle of Karbala is generally noted as cementing the Shiite-Sunni split in Islam, and is marked by parades that include moments of self-flagellation.

Iraqi security forces near Najaf were nearly overwhelmed by the attackers and called in American air and ground support, U.S. military officials said Tuesday. Still, competing claims about the length and result of the battle were reported. Depending on the source, the death toll for the militants ranged anywhere from 100 to 600.

The U.S. military would not comment on the death toll, but put the number of captured militants at more than 100.

Two American soldiers were killed when their attack helicopter went down during the battle, officials said. They were identified as Capt. Mark T. Resh, 28, of Pittsburgh, and Chief Warrant Officer Cornell C. Chao, 36, of California. They were assigned to the 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.

The incident is under investigation.

A top U.S. officer in Baghdad said the fighting was a sign of progress for the Iraqi troops.

“This is an example of a promise kept,” Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, deputy commander of Multi-National Division–Baghdad and the 1st Cavalry Division, said in a military statement. “Everything worked just as it should have.”

U.S. military officials cast the battle as an example of Iraqi troops taking the lead in battle and calling in American resources when needed.

“A joint [Iraqi] patrol was attacked by more than 200 gunmen with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades,” the military statement read. “During the course of the morning-long fight, U.S. fixed-wing aerial assets were called in to assist. U.S. helicopters launched to join the fight at approximately noon.”

Troops from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division and 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment were sent to recover the soldiers killed in the helicopter. There, the battle intensified as troops and militants both tried to reach the site, U.S. officials said.

“Coalition Force elements including helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and ground units joined with the [Iraqi Security Forces] to battle a militia group estimated at more than 200 gunmen,” according to the statement.

The remains of the two soldiers were recovered, officials said.

In a separate incident on Jan. 26, U.S. military officials said Tuesday, an Iraqi civilian guard stopped a would-be suicide bomber from attacking a Shiite mosque in Mosul.

The guard tackled the man outside the mosque, but the man managed to set off his explosive vest, killing himself and the guard, and wounding four bystanders.


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