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Military confrontation in Najaf goes on

Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his followers to hand over control of Najaf's Imam Ali Mosque, while refusing to dissolve his militia, according to reports on Arab news channels cited by the Associated Press. A top al-Sadr aide, Aws al-Khafaji, told the al-Jazeera news channel the cleric had requested control of the shrine be given to representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's Shiite leader, according to AP. Al-Sadr refused to disband his Mahdi Army militia, saying, ``I have no right to ever disband it,'' in a letter aired on the al-Arabiya satellite news channel, AP reported. Bloomberg publishes, that the Iraqi government has called on al-Sadr's followers to disarm and leave the shrine, or Iraqi forces would storm the mosque. U.S. and Iraqi forces are surrounding the site and engaging in sporadic clashes with militiamen. U.S. warplanes pounded areas near a shrine where radical Shi'ite militiamen were holed up early Friday after their leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, defied a final demand from Iraq's interim prime minister to disarm. U.S. AC-130 gunships struck repeatedly at positions held by Sadr's Mehdi Army fighters, who have sheltered in and near the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, sacred to Shi'ites around the world. Helicopter gunships also pounded targets near the mosque, and orange flashes and white sparks lit the night sky above the city. The explosions shook houses throughout Najaf, but it was not clear if they marked the start of a major offensive against Mehdi fighters threatened by the interim Iraqi government. A large cloud of smoke rose from the ancient Wadi al-Salam (Valley of Peace) cemetery, which is near the mosque complex and where Sadr's supporters have fought U.S. troops for two weeks. Armored vehicles appeared to head to the battle zone around the golden domed mosque and the burial ground, from where heavy machinegun fire echoed. Witnesses said there were several hundred militiamen holed up in the sprawling mosque complex, informs Reuters. According to Guardian Unlimited, militants bombarded a Najaf police station with mortar rounds, killing seven policemen and injuring more than 30. An American base in Najaf came under mortar attack, but no casualties were reported, the military said. U.S. forces also battled al-Sadr's supporters in a Baghdad slum, where militants said five fighters and five civilians were killed. Also, late Thursday, an American warplane bombed targets in the Sunni city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad. Two mortar rounds exploded inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy, injuring two people, the U.S. military said. U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice counseled Americans to be ``less critical of every twist and turn'' in Iraq. ``We need to be more patient with people who are making those early steps'' toward a working multiethnic democracy, she said. Al-Jazeera aired a video showing a militant group vowing to kill a missing Western journalist if U.S. forces don't leave Najaf within 48 hours. The video showed a man resembling missing journalist Micah Garen, 36, kneeling in front of five masked, armed militants. The tape's authenticity could not be confirmed.

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