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Iraq Prepares Assault on Najaf, Gives Rebels Hours

Aug 18, 8:45 AM (ET)

By Khaled Farhan

NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's defense minister gave Shi'ite militiamen in the holy city of Najaf hours to surrender Wednesday, warning that troops were preparing for a major assault to "teach them a lesson they will never forget."

Explosions and gunfire echoed through the streets as U.S. forces battled Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose two-week-old uprising poses the biggest challenge yet to Iraq's interim government.

Sadr's fighters are taking shelter in Najaf's Imam Ali shrine, hoping their opponents will not dare to attack one of the holiest sites for Iraq's majority Shi'ites, but Defense Minister Hazim al-Shaalan said an assault was imminent.

"They have a chance. In the next few hours they have to surrender themselves and their weapons," Shaalan said in the city after meeting local officials.

"We are in the process of completing all our military preparations... We will teach them a lesson they will never forget," he said.

American marines and soldiers have been doing most of the fighting in Najaf, but Shaalan said Iraqi forces had been training to storm the shrine complex and could complete such an operation within hours.

"It will be Iraqis who enter the shrine ... there will be no American role in this, except giving air protection and protecting some roads leading to the shrine. But the entry (of the shrine) will be 100 percent Iraqi," Shaalan told Al Arabiya, a pan-Arab television channel, in Najaf.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued a statement accusing Sadr's men of laying mines around the shrine.

The director of Najaf's main hospital, Falah al-Muhana, said 29 people had been brought in killed or wounded from the clashes Wednesday, but there were no more precise figures. U.S. casualties are treated at their own bases.

Sadr's uprising has fueled clashes in other Shi'ite cities in southern Iraq and divided a national conference in Baghdad intended to advance Iraq's progress toward democracy.

Insurgents fired mortar rounds in Baghdad, with one landing near the conference venue Wednesday, witnesses said. Two more mortar bombs were fired near the Interior Ministry in Baghdad. No casualties were reported in either attack.

But in the northern city of Mosul, guerrillas fired a mortar bomb into a crowded market, killing five civilians and wounding 21, officials said.


The Baghdad conference was due to announce members of a new council to oversee the interim government later Wednesday, the meeting prolonged by disputes over Najaf and wrangling over the makeup of the council.

A delegation from the conference flew to Najaf Tuesday to try to broker an end to the fighting that erupted on August 5, but Sadr refused to meet them.

The Najaf uprising has exposed Iraq's fragile security situation and the interim government's reliance on U.S. troops, posing interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi with a major dilemma ahead of elections in January.

Allawi must be seen to resolve the challenge to his authority, but using heavy-handed tactics near Najaf's shrines could enrage the country's 60-percent Shi'ite majority.

U.S. officers said they had not provoked clashes during the delegation's visit to Najaf Tuesday, saying fighters from Sadr's Mehdi Army had attacked them first. Sadr's fighters accuse U.S. troops of starting the fighting earlier this month.

The uprising has inflicted a heavy toll of dead and wounded among civilians.

Iraq's health ministry said Wednesday 21 people had been killed in clashes in Baghdad, Basra, Diwaniya and Najaf and dozens wounded in the past 24 hours. Clashes continued in the Iraqi capital Wednesday.

Tensions in Najaf have sharpened divisions among the 1,300 delegates meeting in Baghdad to choose the new 100-member council, designed to act as a watchdog over the interim government.

The conference had been due to announce the membership of the council Tuesday, but was extended to a fourth day amid wrangling among delegates.

The conference, which includes religious and political leaders, is to pick 81 candidates, while the remaining 19 will come from Iraq's now defunct governing council.

The council will be able to veto legislation with a two-thirds majority, approve the 2005 budget and appoint a new prime minister or president should either quit or die in office.

Polish troops in the southern town of Hillah came under mortar fire. A polish reporter said a Polish soldier and an American civilian appeared to have been wounded.