NAJAF, Iraq - A fierce day-long battle near the Shiite holy city of Najaf left at least 300 militants dead as they fought Iraqi and US forces, an Iraqi official said Monday.
"At least 300 militants have been killed and another 13 arrested," said Ahmed Duaible, spokesman for the Najaf governorate.
The battle which broke out early Sunday had now calmed, he said and the mopping-up operation included a search for the militants' leader.
"We do not know the fate of Ahmed Ibnal Hassan who led the gunmen," Duaible said, adding that a group of militants had managed to escape and he could be one of them.
The spokesman said Hassan was leading the group called "Soldiers of Heaven" which had clashed with security forces at a police checkpoint.
The initial clash turned into a pitched battle which lasted the entire day in Zarqa, north of Najaf.
US aircraft supported the Iraqi soldiers, bombing positions where the militants were firing from.
However, one US helicopter crashed in the area, killing two crewmen on board, the military said Sunday.
Meanwhile, Dubaile said a large cache of heavy and medium weapons were found and were being destroyed.
He said three policemen had been killed and 30 wounded in the firefight.
White House resists opposition to Iraq plan
The White House is sticking to its plan to send extra US troops to Iraq, resisting public disapproval and opposition Democrats determined to pass a damning resolution against the strategy.
Vice President Dick Cheney said the plan, which includes sending 21,500 more soldiers to the war-torn country, should be given time to work.
"People are trying to make a judgment on whether or not this plan is going to work I think far too early," he said in an interview with Newsweek released Sunday. "And I think in fairness to the Iraqis, they need to be given an opportunity to follow through on their commitments."
He cautioned against the phased withdrawal backed by Democrats, saying Iraq would collapse into chaos and the United States would lose stature in the world.
"All of a sudden, the United States, which is the bulwark of security in that part of world, would I think no longer -- could no longer be counted on by our friends and allies that have put so much into this struggle," he said.
Congress is due to vote in early February on a non-binding motion criticizing the surge in troops, with Democrats and Republicans moving to prepare other draft resolutions even as the violence in Iraq claimed more lives with at least 61 killed across the country on Sunday.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer predicted a large number of lawmakers in Bush's Republican Party -- possibly "even a majority" -- would support the resolution condemning the proposed deployment.
"And that will send shockwaves through the White House and through the country," Schumer told NBC.
Congress also appeared headed for a possible confrontation with Bush over requests for additional funds for the war, with lawmakers vowing to pile pressure on the president.
Bush has urged a skeptical US public to give his new strategy a chance and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told CBS that Senate Republicans were "not going to talk about failure" in Iraq.
"We're going to talk about success," he said. "But we don't want to allow these places, to become once again where these elements like Al-Qaeda can operate with impunity and then be prepared to launch attacks on us again here in America."
But the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, presidential hopeful Joe Biden, challenged the administration's doomsday predictions.
"It's not the American people or the United States Congress who are emboldening the enemy," he told Fox News.
"It's the failed policy of this president, going to war without a strategy, going to war prematurely, going to war without enough troops, going to war without enough equipment and lastly, now sending 17,500 people in the middle of a city of 6.5 million people with bullseyes on their back with no plan," he added.
Biden vowed a "full-throated debate" on the plan in the Senate despite administration promises to move ahead in face of the opposition.
The president faces an uphill battle to gain support for his plan, with even loyal Republicans like Senator David Vitter of Louisiana calling it "clearly the final shot."
"I think we should be stronger and clearer about benchmarks," the senator said on NBC, adding his support for a regional conference that includes Iran and Syria.
"We need to go over and over and over the issue of, is this new troop level enough to make a difference. Because I think, clearly, we have been wrong in the past about the adequacy of troop levels," he said.
Democrat-leaning independent Senator Joe Lieberman said Sunday he was working with Republican Senator John McCain on a text to try to bridge the divisions.
On the campaign trail in Iowa, presidential hopeful and Senator Hillary Clinton said it would be irresponsible for Bush to leave US troops in Iraq when his term ends in two years.
"The president has said that this is going to be left to his successor," the Democrat told a crowd in an auditorium. "I think it's the height of irresponsibility and I resent it."
On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters -- including Vietnam War opponent US actress Jane Fonda -- took to the streets of Washington to denounce the president's plan and demand an end to the war.