BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Iraqi forces fought with hundreds of gunmen Sunday in what may have been one of Iraq's deadliest battles in years, The New York Times reported.
Backed by U.S. helicopters and tanks, the Iraqis battled gunmen hiding in a date palm orchard near the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, in an exchange that lasted some 15 hours, Iraqi officials told the newspaper. A spokesman for the Iraqi security forces said the fighting ended just after 10 p.m. local time.
A U.S. helicopter was shot down and 250 bodies were found at the site of the clashes, about 120 miles south of Baghdad, the Iraqi officials said. The U.S. military confirmed the helicopter went down and that two soldiers aboard were killed and their bodies were recovered.
Local Iraqi officials said the fighters in the orchard were both Iraqi and foreign -- some wearing the colors of Pakistani and Afghan fighters.
The newspaper quoted officials as saying the insurgents were planning to assassinate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest Shiite leader in Iraq.