Explosions and gunfire shook Najaf on Monday amid fierce battles between U.S. forces and Shiite militants, who remained in control of a revered shrine as negotiations dragged on for its handover to religious authorities.
Four over an hour Monday, militants in the holy city of Najaf fired mortars at U.S. troops, who responded with artillery, residents said.
Late Sunday, U.S. warplanes and helicopters attacked positions in the Old City for the second night, witnesses said. Militant leaders said the Imam Ali Shrine compound's outer walls were damaged in the attacks. The U.S. military said it had fired on sites south of the shrine, from which militants were shooting, and did not hit the compound wall.
Sunday's clashes in Najaf appeared more intense than in recent days as U.S. forces sealed off the Old City. But Iraqi government officials counseled patience, saying they intended to resolve the crisis without raiding the shrine, one of Shia Islam's holiest sites.
"The government will leave no stone unturned to reach a peaceful settlement," Iraqi National Security adviser Mouaffaq al-Rubaie told The Associated Press. "It has no intention or interest in killing more people or having even the most trivial damage to the shrine. We have a vested interest in a peaceful settlement."
In other recent developments:
Senior government officials said last week an Iraqi force was preparing to raid the shrine within hours to expel the militants loyal to al-Sadr, but interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi quickly backed off that threat.
Such an operation would anger Shiites across the country and could turn them against the new government as it tries to gain legitimacy and tackle a 16-month-old insurgency.
In Najaf, U.S. tanks rumbled down deserted streets Sunday, while sporadic gunfire filled the air. The roads leading to the shrine were muddied and filled with chunks of concrete ripped from the streets. Black smoke trailed from a building, as the clatter of automatic gunfire rang out.
In the afternoon a fierce battle between the military and al-Sadr's militants broke out when insurgents launched a mortar barrage at U.S. troops, witnesses said. Calm returned to the city after about half an hour.
Early Sunday, U.S. warplanes bombed the Old City and the sounds of shelling could be heard in the streets, witnesses said. The U.S. military could not confirm the bombing.
At least three people were killed and 18 injured during overnight fighting, said Tawfiq Mohammed of Najaf General Hospital.
Fighting in the nearby city of Kufa on Saturday killed 40 militants, according to the Interior Ministry. However, Mahmoud al-Soudani, an al-Sadr aide, called the claim "government propaganda" and said only one militant had been killed.
As of Friday, 949 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.