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At Least 15 Killed as US Troops, Al-Sadr Militiamen Clash in Karbala, Najaf - 2004-05-21

U.S. forces in Iraq have killed at least 15 members of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia in battles in the cities of Karbala and Najaf Friday.

Most of the deaths were in Karbala, where U.S. forces used heavy firepower against militiamen near holy sites.

Moqtada al-Sadr urged his followers at Friday prayers in neighboring Kufa to continue the struggle against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, even if he should be killed. The fighting in the holy cities sparked protests in Iran, Lebanon and Bahrain with Shi'ites demanding U.S. forces leave the cities.

North of Baghdad, near Baquba, four members of the Iraqi security forces were killed when gunmen riding in pick-up trucks opened fire on a security checkpoint.

Meanwhile, outside the capital, the U.S. military released 454 more Iraqi prisoners from the Abu Ghraib jail, the facility at the center of the prisoner abuse scandal.

Also Friday, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council condemned Thursday's American-backed police raids on the home and offices of council member Ahmad Chalabi. U.S. officials say Mr. Chalabi may have passed secret information to the Iranian government. In another development, the last Spanish soldiers in Iraq have completed their withdrawal, as promised by Spain's new Socialist government and a Spanish radio journalist who was briefly held captive Friday in Najaf by a Shi'ite group has been freed.