Fierce fighting in Iraq's Najaf, Sadr defiant
Fierce fighting raged in the city of Najaf on Thursday after a rebel Shi'ite cleric defied an Iraqi government threat to attack his stronghold in a holy shrine and rejected demands that he end his uprising.
U.S. aircraft and tanks pounded the area around the Imam Ali Mosque soon after Moqtada al-Sadr spurned the ultimatum from interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Thick smoke poured into the sky as the boom of dozens of explosions shook the old city and automatic rifle fire crackled through the air.
But fighting eased an hour later, indicating the government's threatened offensive was not yet under way at the mosque where Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia have holed up.
Away from the mosque area, three mortar bombs hit a Najaf police station in quick succession, killing seven police and wounding 21 others, police said. Police said Mehdi militiamen fired the salvo.
Sadr reverted to his trademark defiance after two days in which he had appeared to be willing to disarm his militia and leave Iraq's holiest Shi'ite shrine.
Asked about the latest government demands, Sheikh Ahmed al-Sheibani, a senior Sadr aide and Mehdi Army commander, told reporters in the mosque: "It is very clear that we reject them."
The two-week rebellion has badly dented Allawi's authority, killed hundreds and rattled world oil markets. Oil prices hit a new record of $47.96 for a barrel of U.S. light crude.
Iraqi Minister of State Kasim Daoud told a news conference in Najaf the government had exhausted all peaceful means to persuade Sadr to back down and was determined to impose a military solution unless the cleric surrendered.
He said the scion of a respected Shi'ite clerical dynasty was facing his "final hours" before an attack.
Daoud vowed to liberate the Imam Ali Mosque but declined to say whether the government would storm the site itself.
Any such assault could provoke outrage among Iraq's majority Shi'ite community, especially if U.S. forces are involved.
U.S. troops in Baghdad overran the firebrand cleric's stronghold in the sprawling Shi'ite slum of Sadr City with tanks and armored vehicles, meeting little resistance, witnesses said. They later withdrew to the outskirts of the area.
Sadr said on Wednesday his militia forces would disarm and leave the mosque if a truce was agreed with 2,000 U.S. marines encircling the city, who have pounded his militia for two weeks with warplanes, helicopter gunships and tanks.
He made his apparent concession after the government threatened to teach the Mehdi militia "a lesson they will never forget."
His subsequent posturing aroused skepticism among U.S. officials that he would back down.
"I don't think we can trust al-Sadr. I think we have to see action, not just words," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told Fox News.
Most Najaf residents too were skeptical fighting would end.
"What peace? I don't believe it. Look at this hell," said Talib Moussa, a 35-year-old labourer.
U.S. armored vehicles were deployed along the main roads in Baghdad's Sadr City, a slum of two million people where fierce fighting has broken out in the past two weeks.
U.S. forces said they had killed 50 militiamen on Wednesday in their push into Sadr City.
Sadr has more than once vowed to fight to the death in Najaf and has proved a wily strategist in past confrontations.
Despite the plump, bearded cleric's youth -- he is about 30 -- the latest rebellion has transformed him into the most recognizable face of resistance to the U.S. presence in Iraq.
One U.S. marine was killed in action in Najaf on Wednesday, the U.S. military said. More than 700 U.S. troops have died in action since the start of last year's U.S.-led invasion.
Al Jazeera television reported that Iraqi militants who said they captured a U.S. journalist last week had threatened to kill him within 48 hours unless U.S. forces left Najaf.
It showed footage of a man with a mustache kneeling in front of five masked men holding rifles. The channel identified the man as Micah Garen and the group as the Martyrs Brigades.