Followers loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Friday they were prepared 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.
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi stepped back Friday from his government's previous threats to send a crack force of Iraqi troops into the shrine to root out the militants, a move that could damage the holy site and further enrage the nation's majority Shiites.
"We are not going to attack the mosque, we are not going to attack Muqtada al-Sadr and the mosque, evidently we are not going to do this," Allawi told BBC radio Friday. "We are not going to attack the shrines at all."
Allawi, who a day earlier made a final call on al-Sadr's followers to capitulate, said Friday that a peaceful end to the crisis was still possible.
"We have extended the olive branch, the olive branch is still extended, he can take advantage of the olive branch," Allawi said. "We want a peaceful solution."
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A second warplane fired at least one missile into an industrial area of the city later Friday 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. U.S. forces have routinely bombed targets in the city it says are insurgent safehouses or strongholds.
In a sermon read on his behalf in the nearby Kufa Mosque, al-Sadr said he wanted the religious authorities to take control of the Old City from his Mahdi Army, though he also called on all Muslims to rise up if the shrine is attacked.
"I call on the Arab and Islamic people: If you see the dome of the holy Imam Ali Shrine shelled, don't be lax in resisting the occupier in your countries," he said. It was unclear if al-Sadr was calling for worldwide attacks on U.S. forces — which he often refers to as Iraq's occupier.
Fighting between insurgents and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force on Thursday and early Friday killed 77 people and injured 70 others, the Health Ministry reported Friday afternoon. The city appeared to have quieted down by Friday morning.
Al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said Friday he was headed 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 Friday, he said.
"We don't want to appease the government ... we want to appease the Iraqi people," he said.
Aides to al-Sistani, who is in London receiving medical care, said they would need to discuss how any handover would be implemented.
However, "the religious authority would be positive about this issue to help solve the ongoing crisis," Sheik Hamed Khafaf, an al-Sistani aide, said from London.
With peace efforts continuing, Najaf appeared far more quiet late Friday morning 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 Friday. 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.
U.S. forces said they were still geared up for a fight.
"We are continuing to do planning and preparations for continuous offensive operations to get Mahdi militia destroyed, to capture Muqtada al-Sadr and to turn the holy shrine back to the Iraqi people," Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, of the 1st Cavalry Division, told CNN on Friday.
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 Friday, 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.
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 Friday, but inflicted no casualties.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had warned al-Sadr to disarm his forces and withdraw from the shrine after his government threatened to send a massive Iraqi force to root them out.