IRAQ Shiites attack police station
Women and children are among those inside a holy shrine, a journalist said.
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) -- Insurgents loyal to a radical Shiite cleric bombarded a Najaf police station with mortars today, killing seven policemen and wounding 31 people as the interim Iraqi government issued an ultimatum to the fighters to disarm immediately or face a massive offensive.
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi made what he said was a "final call" to the Shiite militants in Najaf to disarm and vacate the revered Imam Ali Shrine, although he did not set a deadline.
The cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had previously rejected the demands, according to an official in the cleric's office who said he received a text message to that effect. "Either martyrdom or victory," the message said, according to the official, Haidar al-Tourfi.
The violent clashes that have wracked the Shiite holy city of Najaf for weeks persisted today, with explosions and gunfire ringing through the streets and black smoke rising over the city center.
Appealing to al-Sadr
Allawi called on al-Sadr to accept the government demands personally to end the fighting in Najaf.
"When we hear from him and that he is committed to execute these conditions we will ... give him and his group protection," Allawi said during a news conference in Baghdad.
Though government ministers have threatened a possible offensive against al-Sadr's militants in Najaf in the coming hours, Allawi set no deadline, saying only "we need to have a solution soon."
Allawi also reiterated the government's position that it would not negotiate with armed militias.
The ultimatum came a day after al-Sadr agreed to a peace deal to end the standoff pitting U.S. and Iraqi troops against his Mahdi Army militia forces, who are holed up in the revered Imam Ali shrine in Najaf.
The police station hit by the mortar attack today is not near the shrine but has been a frequent target of militants loyal to al-Sadr.
At a hospital overflowing with casualties, an official said the attack killed at least seven policemen and wounded 31 others. Some of the wounded were forced to sit on the hospital floor as others lined the halls. Blood pooled on the floor, and moans of pain echoed in the corridors.
After the attack, Iraqi police raided a local hotel where foreign journalists were staying, claiming they suspected some of the reporters helped the attackers locate the police station.
In the mosque
Women and children were among the hundreds of al-Sadr supporters inside the mosque complex, some of them "dancing and cheering," a CNN journalist reported from inside the shrine where she was among journalists escorted there with help from the Iraqi government, the U.S. military and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
"They are all very proud to be in here and seem to be very adamant about staying in here," CNN reporter Kianne Sadeq said. "They aren't going anywhere until the fighting is over."
Explosions and gunfire also could be heard elsewhere in the streets of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Three U.S. tanks and two humvees were parked about 400 yards from the shrine, about as close as U.S. forces have come to the holy site during the fighting.
Any American role in fighting at the shrine would most certainly enrage Iraq's Shiite majority, and U.S. forces have been careful to keep their distance.
Fighters from the Mahdi Army militia could be seen manning positions in narrow alleys of the Old City and outside the shrine compound. A clock on the compound's outer wall, reportedly hit by shrapnel, was smoldering.
Fearful of the violence, few civilians in Najaf ventured out, and most stores, some damaged from the fighting, were closed. The U.S. military says the clashes have killed hundreds of militants, though the militants deny that. Nine U.S. troops and at least 40 Iraqi police have been killed as well.
In Washington, the Bush administration also said al-Sadr needed to match words with deeds. "We have seen many, many times al-Sadr assume or say he is going to accept certain terms and then it turns out not to be the case," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Also, Al-Jazeera aired a video today showing a militant group that called itself the Martyrs Brigade vowing to kill a missing Western journalist if U.S. forces do not leave Najaf within 48 hours. The authenticity of the tape could not be determined.
The video showed a man resembling missing journalist Micah Garen, 36, kneeling in front of five masked militants armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Garen's father and fianc & eacute;e were unavailable to comment. Witnesses told police that armed men seized Garen and his Iraqi translator Friday in a market in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
In other developments today:
* Two mortar rounds exploded inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, home to Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy, injuring two people, the U.S. military said.
* An Army spokesman said one soldier died when attackers fired on a U.S. patrol Wednesday in the east Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. The area has been the scene of ongoing firefights between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's supporters, said Maj. Philip Smith. Another soldier was killed while patrolling the same area hours earlier, Smith said.
* Two Marines assigned to the 1st Expeditionary Force were also killed Wednesday, in "security and stability" operations in Najaf, and in a vehicle accident in Anbar province, the military said.
As of Wednesday, 946 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
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