U.S. tanks and snipers took up positions near the revered Imam Ali Shrine and engaged in fierce battles with militants Monday as the U.S. military stepped up pressure on the insurgents to leave the holy site and end their uprising. Explosions shook the area near Najaf's Old City – a mix of streets and narrow, maze-like alleys that is the heart of much of the fighting – sending up clouds of black smoke. The violence ripped a chunk out of the outer wall of the shrine compound. With the U.S. advance Monday, fewer militant fighters were visible in the streets of Najaf and some were seen leaving the city. Militant medical officials said at least two insurgents were killed and four others injured. Al-Hakim Hospital reported two dead civilians and two others injured, but many more casualties were reported in the Old City and could not be reached by emergency workers, said Hussein Hadi, a hospital employee. Muqtada al-Sadr, the militant cleric leading the uprising, has himself not been seen in public for many days, and police drove around Najaf with loudspeakers declaring that he had fled and was headed to the northern city of Sulaymaniyah. Al-Sadr's aides denied that, informs the Sun Diego Union Tribune. According to Channelnewsasia, US forces unleashed a fresh wave of raids on positions held by firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr's militia in Najaf, where hopes of seeing a peaceful resolution to the bloody siege of a revered Shiite shrine were fast fading. An AFP correspondent said the strikes -- which went on for almost an hour -- hit several streets which lead to the shrine and flames could be seen shooting into the sky near the golden-domed mausoleum. While Mehdi Army presence at the gates of the compound and in the immediate surroundings appeared to have been scaled back over the past 24 hours, militiamen were thought to have redeployed in nearby streets. The latest air raids could be a prelude for a fresh push by Iraqi government forces and the US army. But the US military had no comment on the operation and it was difficult to verify whether the holy site itself had been hit or whether there had been any casualties. A hole one metre (more than three feet) across was already punched into the outer wall of the shrine compound on Sunday night, scattering debris across the marble floor. Sadr supporters said it had been caused by a missile fired by a US helicopter, although the US military denied it had targeted the shrine. US marines and Shi'ite militiamen have clashed around a shrine in the Iraqi city of Najaf, in some of the heaviest fighting since the 20-day-old rebellion erupted. At least 15 explosions have rocked the area near the Imam Ali mosque, where radical Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia have been holed up. Gunfire has echoed through the alleyways near the shrine, while US tanks keep up their encirclement around the city's heart. Shrapnel has landed in the courtyard of the gold-domed mosque, whose outer walls have already been slightly damaged in fighting that's killed hundreds and driven oil prices to record highs. But news that Iraq's crude exports are back to normal for the first time in two weeks could calm the jittery oil markets. Meantime overnight, a US gunship blasted rebel positions after a weekend of fruitless talks between Sadr's aides and religious authorities. Religious authorities want Sadr to hand over the keys of the shrine to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - Iraq's most respected Shi'ite cleric, publishes Australian Financial Review.
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