Shiite rebel leader and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was wounded Friday in a battle with U.S. and Iraqi forces.
That's according to spokesmen for al-Sadr, who deny knowing whether the Iraqi rebel leader is holed up - along with his followers - in the Najaf compound housing the Imam Ali shrine. Al-Sadr has led an uprising against coalition troops for more than a week in the city, vowing to fight "until the last drop of my blood has been spilled."
Al-Sadr was injured as he was met with members of his Mahdi Army militia, near the Imam Ali shrine on Friday morning, said Haider al-Tousi, an al-Sadr aide.
He was hit with shrapnel in the chest and twice in a leg, al-Tousi said.
"He was moved to an unknown destination, we don't know his whereabouts right now," he said.
Another of his spokespeople described al-Sadr's condition as stable.
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U.S. and Iraqi troops have formed a perimeter around the compound, but have so far made no move to raid it, concerned about touching off an outcry from the Muslim world about desecrating one of Islam's most revered sites.
Al-Sadr reportedly told his followers to remain calm once news of his injuries emerged.
"We got a letter from him saying "Be steadfast and behave rationally, don't surrender to your emotions," said Aws al-Khafaji, from al-Sadr's office in the southern town of Nasiriyah, to al-Jazeera television.
Another al-Sadr aide, Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, called on Iraqis to demonstrate Friday near the Green Zone in Baghdad, the location of most Iraqi government ministries, as well as the U.S. and British embassies, to protest against the fighting in Najaf.
Thursday, U.S. forces stormed al-Sadr's home, meeting no resistance as they pushed their way in - but also finding no sign of al-Sadr, who has vowed to fight coalition troops "until the last drop of my blood has been spilled."
Also Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called on al-Sadr's fighters to put down their weapons and leave the Imam Ali shrine where they have sought refuge.
Allawi's appeal, made in a statement read by Iraqi officials, came as thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers launched a major assault on al-Sadr and his militiamen. Explosions and gunfire echoed near Najaf's revered shrine and its vast cemetery.
"These places have never been exposed to such violations in the past," Allawi said, adding that the violence has killed many innocent people.
"Our government calls upon all the armed groups to drop their weapons and return to society," Allawi said. "We also call upon all the armed men to evacuate the holy shrine and not to violate its holiness."
Governments and others across the Muslim world called for a halt to fighting in Najaf. Egypt urged the coalition to rely on dialogue instead of force, and Iran's Foreign Ministry said the international community should intervene to "prevent the massacre of defenseless Iraqi people."
Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who left Najaf for London to undergo medical treatment when the fighting began a week ago, expressed "deep sorrow and great worry" and called on all sides to resolve the crisis as soon as possible and prevent it from repeating.
Al-Sistani said in a statement that his office was "continuing to exert efforts with all sides, Iraqi officials and others, to put a quick end to the current tragic situation."
Nearly 5,000 al-Sadr sympathizers took to the streets in the southern city of Basra on Thursday demanding that U.S. troops withdraw from Najaf and condemning Allawi for working with the Americans.
Al-Sadr loyalists in Basra threatened Wednesday to blow up the oil pipelines and port infrastructure there if an offensive was launched. A similar threat Monday caused oil officials to briefly stop pumping from the southern oil wells.
Al-Sadr's fighters have been battling coalition forces since Aug. 5 in a resurgence of a spring uprising that had been dormant for two months following a series of truces. The cleric exhorted his followers Wednesday to fight on even if he is killed.