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Tight Security Marks Holy Shi'ite Commemoration in Iraq

Tight security was in effect in Iraq for Shi'ite Muslims' observance of Ashura, their holiest day. South of Baghdad, Iraqi forces say they broke up a plot to kill Shi'ite clerics during a major battle in Najaf province. VOA's Sean Maroney reports.

Sounds of mourning echo throughout the holy city of Karbala as Shi'ites commemorate Ashura.

Iraqi police took no chances as they stepped up patrols in the city, 80 kilometers south of Baghdad.

Ashura marks the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Islam's Prophet Muhammed. It is the holiest day in the calendar for Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population.

In nearby Najaf province, Iraqi forces battled with members of a religious cult called "Soldiers of Heaven." Iraqi officials say the Muslim fringe group planned to kill Shi'ite clerics during Ashura. They say their troops killed at least 200 militants, including the cult's leader, and detained more than 100 others.

The cultists' plot was aimed at Shi'ites, but a senior official in Najaf says those involved in the lengthy battle included both Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents, as well as fighters from Egypt, Lebanon and Sudan.

U.S. air strikes supported Iraqi troops during Sunday's battle. Two American soldiers died when their attack helicopter crashed during the fight. There is no word on why the aircraft went down.

President Bush welcomed the Iraqis' battlefield success. He also repeated previous warnings that the United States will respond firmly to any sign of increased Iranian military activity in Iraq.

In Washington, the U.S. Senate is preparing to vote this week on a resolution voicing disapproval of Mr. Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq.

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden is among the sponsors of the nonbonding resolution. "I will make you a bet [that] you will not find 20 percent of the Senate standing up and saying that the president is headed in the right direction."

Some Republicans are voicing their support for the president's "troop surge" plan, which would send an additional 21,500 soldiers to Iraq. For instance, Duncan Hunter, a Republican representative from California, said, "The idea that Congress is going to sit back and talk about cutting off reinforcement, that dis-serves the mission, and I think it dis-serves the soldiers that are over there."

President Bush says additional troops will go to Iraq now matter how the Senate votes on the resolution.