IRAQ Militants prepare to turn over shrine

The city appeared to be much calmer today.
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) -- Followers loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said today they were preparing to hand control of the revered Imam Ali Shrine to top Shiite religious authorities in a bid to end a 2-week-old uprising in the holy city of Najaf.
Al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said he was on his way to the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, to offer to present officials there with keys to the shrine. If they agree -- which is not a certainty -- the shrine could be handed over later today, he said.
"We don't want to appease the government ... we want to appease the Iraqi people," he said.
Calmer in city
The city appeared far more quiet today than it has in weeks. U.S. tanks were on the streets, but residents reported seeing some of al-Sadr's Mahdi army militia pulling out of the Old City.
The Imam Ali Shrine compound, which had been filled with hundreds of chanting and bellicose gunmen in recent days, appeared far calmer today.
Video of the compound and its outskirts, shown on the pan-Arab station Al-Jazeera, revealed far fewer people inside and no armed men. One sandbagged gun position outside the shrine was abandoned.
Explosions and gunbattles raged in Najaf all day Thursday, intensifying hours after U.S. forces bombed militant positions and Iraq's prime minister made a "final call" for the cleric's militia to surrender.
U.S. Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said U.S. warplanes had been "clearing Muqtada militia positions" east of the revered Imam Ali Shrine on Thursday night, when at least 30 explosions shook the Old City. Before dawn today, U.S. forces also fired precision-guided bombs at militiamen who were firing mortars at U.S. troops in the neighboring cemetery and Old City, Batson said.
Attack on police station
Earlier Thursday, militants bombarded a Najaf police station with mortar rounds, killing seven police and injuring 35 others.
Another round hit near the same station today, but inflicted no casualties.
In Baghdad, troops from the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division pulled out of the Sadr City slum, scene of fierce fighting the day before between U.S. forces and supporters of the rebel cleric.
U.S. Capt. Brian O'Malley said soldiers "went all the way through the city and back" but pulled out today to respect the Muslim Sabbath.
Militants said five fighters and five civilians were killed today during the clashes in Sadr City. The Health Ministry said 10 people were killed and 79 were injured.
In Fallujah, U.S. warplanes launched two airstrikes today on the troubled Iraqi city, considered a hotbed of Sunni Muslim insurgents. Two people were killed and six injured in the first attack just after midnight, said Dia'a al-Jumeili, a doctor at Fallujah's main hospital.
A second warplane fired at least one missile into an industrial area of the city later this morning. It exploded in an open field, leaving a crater and spraying shrapnel across the doors of nearby automobile shops, but causing no serious damage.
Shrapnel from the second blast also hit an ice cream factory, wounding three people, said Adel Khamis, another doctor at Fallujah General Hospital.
U.S. forces have routinely bombed targets in the city it says are insurgent safehouses or strongholds. Fallujah is located some 40 miles west of Baghdad.
Elsewhere in Iraq, militants attacked oil facilities in the north and south, fired mortars at U.S. Embassy offices in the capital, injuring one American, and threatened to kill two hostages, a Turkish worker and a U.S. journalist.
In a speech, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had warned the radical cleric to disarm his forces and withdraw from the shrine after his government threatened to send a massive Iraqi force to root them out.
Defying that ultimatum, al-Sadr sent a telephone text message vowing to seek "martyrdom or victory," and his jubilant followers inside the shrine danced and chanted.
Later in the day, a top al-Sadr aide said the cleric had ordered his militia to turn over control of the shrine where they have been holed up for two weeks fighting Iraqi and U.S. forces to turn over control of the site to top Shiite clerics. But in a letter shown by the Arab television station Al-Arabiya, al-Sadr said he would not disband his Mahdi army.
Al-Sadr has said in recent days he wanted to make sure the shrine was in the custody of religious authorities, though it was unclear if the government would agree to that.
Many are angry
The violence in the holy city between the insurgents and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force has angered many in Iraq's Shiite majority and proven a major challenge to Allawi's fledgling interim government as it tries to build credibility and prove it is not a U.S. puppet.
Any raid to oust militants from the Imam Ali shrine -- especially one that damaged the holy site -- could spark a far larger Shiite uprising. Government accusations that militants have mined the shrine compound and reports that women and children were among those inside could further complicate a raid.
In the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City -- named for the cleric's late father -- U.S. tanks moved throughout the streets and helicopter gunships shot at al-Sadr militants from the skies. The militants claimed five fighters and five civilians were killed.
Accepted peace plan
Thursday's violence came a day after al-Sadr had accepted an Iraqi delegation's peace plan for Najaf, demanding he disarm his militia, leave the shrine and turn to politics in exchange for amnesty. But he continued to attach conditions the government rejected, and fighting persisted.
Reiterating his government's refusal to negotiate with the armed militants, Allawi had called on al-Sadr to personally accept the government's demands to end the Najaf fighting -- not through aides or letters as he has been communicating so far.
"When we hear from him and that he is committed to execute these conditions we will ... give him and his group protection," the prime minister said in a Baghdad news conference.

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