Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued a "final call" Thursday to Shiite insurgents to disarm and withdraw from a revered shrine after his government threatened a massive onslaught by Iraqi forces. As the peace deal for Najaf unraveled, militants bombarded a police station with mortar rounds, killing seven police and injuring 31 others.
Allawi's last-ditch warning came shortly after the militants' leader, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, rejected the government's ultimatum with a vow to seek "martyrdom or victory."
Hours after Allawi issued a final call to al-Sadr's militants, more than 30 explosions shook the Old City of Najaf late Thursday.
In other developments:
Gunbattles persisted Thursday through the streets of the holy city of Najaf, wracked by violence since the Shiite militant uprising began two weeks ago. Witnesses said a U.S. warplane fired missiles at a hotel in a neighborhood where Mahdi Army militants were known to take up fighting positions.
U.S. forces and Shiite insurgents also fought in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, where more than 50 militants and civilians were killed Thursday, Mahdi Army spokesman Na'eem al-Kaabi said.
U.S. tanks moved throughout the streets of the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood on Thursday, and helicopter gunships shot at militants from the skies. The U.S. military had no immediate comment on the operation.
Just a day earlier, al-Sadr — in a letter to a national conference in Baghdad — had accepted a peace plan to disarm his fighters, withdraw from the Imam Ali Shrine and turn to politics in exchange for amnesty. But the cleric also insisted he be allowed to negotiate the terms of the plan's implementation, a demand the government dismissed.
Reiterating the refusal to negotiate with the armed militants, Allawi called on al-Sadr to accept the government demands to end the Najaf fighting personally — 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.
Allawi's demand that al-Sadr personally accept the peace deal appeared to be a step back from Minister of State Qassim Dawoud's earlier ultimatum, demanding that al-Sadr's militia immediately evacuate the shrine and drop its weapons to stave off a government offensive.
While government ministers had threatened a possible offensive in Najaf in the coming hours, Allawi set no deadline, saying only "we need to have a solution soon."
Any threatened raid on the Imam Ali Shrine — where the militants are holed up as they battle U.S. and Iraqi forces — could inflame the country's majority Shiite population against the government, especially if the holy site were damaged. Other Muslim countries, including Shiite Iran, have appealed to the Iraqi government to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The Arab League chief on Thursday called for an immediate end to military operations in Najaf and said Iraqi civilians must be spared. Secretary-General Amr Moussa received news of artillery "shelling and renewed clashes with great uneasiness," Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press.
An al-Sadr representative in Baghdad, Abdel-Hadi al-Darraji, warned that fighting in Najaf could "ignite a revolution all over Iraq."
"We welcome any initiative to stop the bloodbath in Najaf," he told Al-Arabiya television. "Otherwise the battle will move to Baghdad, Amarah, Basra and anywhere in Iraq."
Government accusations that the militants had mined the shrine compound and reports that women and children were among those inside could further complicate a raid.
U.S. troop action against the shrine also would increase outrage in the Shiite world, but Iraqi officials have said a crack squad of Iraqi troops would lead an assault on the poorly trained militants, and U.S. forces would not go inside the compound.
Three U.S. tanks and two Humvees were parked about 400 meters (yards) from the Imam Ali shrine, about as close as U.S. forces have come to the holy site during the fighting.
The crisis in Najaf poses the greatest challenge yet to the authority of Allawi's fledgling government, which is seeking to gain support from skeptical Iraqis and bring stability to the violence-plagued country.
The Najaf violence has spread to other Shiite communities, including Baghdad's Sadr City slum. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that 50 militants were killed in recent fighting.
As part of the government's ultimatum to disarm or risk attack, al-Sadr must also sign a statement saying he will refrain from future violence and release all civilians and Iraqi security forces his militants have kidnapped. In addition, al-Sadr must hold a news conference to announce he is disbanding the Mahdi Army.
Al-Sadr quickly rejected the demands, according to Haidar al-Tourfi, an official at al-Sadr office's office in Najaf. "Either martyrdom or victory," was the cleric's response, sent in a text message presumably from his hideout inside the holy city, al-Tourfi said.