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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S., Iraqi Forces Kill 300 Militants

NAJAF, Iraq -- U.S. and Iraqi forces killed some 300 gunmen from an apocalyptic Muslim cult in a daylong battle involving U.S. tanks and aircraft near the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraqi police, army and political sources said.

The U.S. military said Monday that it was an ongoing operation, so it could not provide any details.

An Iraqi army source said U.S. forces took control of the operation on Sunday and that bombing continued in the area until well after dawn Monday, which was the climax of Ashura, the high point of the Shiite religious calendar.

Two Americans were killed, the U.S. military said Sunday, when an attack helicopter went down during the battle that was one of the strangest incidents of the four-year conflict. Iraqi officials said the helicopter seemed to have been shot down.

Iraqi Police Colonel Ali Nomas said from 300 to 350 gunmen had been killed in the operation and dozens more arrested. Three Iraqi soldiers were killed and six more missing, and five policemen were killed. Another 40 Iraqi police and soldiers were wounded.

One Iraqi political source said hundreds of fighters, drawn from both Sunni and Shiite communities, fought throughout Sunday and late into the night.

Details of the day's fighting were sketchy and the origins of the fighters unclear. An Iraqi army source said some of the dead wore headbands emblazoned with the words "Soldier of Heaven."

The U.S. military officially handed over responsibility for Najaf province to Iraqi security forces last month, withdrawing most U.S. troops, to be recalled only to help in emergencies.

Najaf governor Asaad Abu Gilel said authorities had uncovered a plot to kill leading Shiite clerics in Najaf on Monday, to coincide with the climax of Ashura, the annual Shiite rite marking a seventh-century battle that entrenched the schism between Shiite and Sunni Islam.

"There is a conspiracy to kill the clergy on the 10th day of Muharram," he said, referring to Monday by the Muslim calendar.

Initially on Sunday, the Najaf governor described the fighters as Sunnis, but political and security sources said they were followers of Ahmed Hassani al-Yemeni and described him as an apocalyptic cult leader claiming to be the vanguard of the Mahdi -- a messiah-like figure in Islam whose coming heralds the start of perfect world justice. He had been operating from an office in Najaf until it was raided and closed down earlier this month.

The sources said captured gunmen declared loyalty to Yemeni.

A U.S. military spokesman said he could not confirm any details of who the gunmen were.

Up to 1.5 millions pilgrims gathered in Kerbala, 70 kilometers north of Najaf, to mark Ashura, the death in battle of Mohammad's grandson in 680, which confirmed the split in Islam between rival claimants to the Prophet's inheritance.

In Kerbala, 11,000 troops and police were deployed. More than 100 people were killed there by suicide bombers three years ago.