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America pounds & pleads with militia

Najaf, Aug. 10 (Reuters): US forces pounded Shia militia from the air and ground in Najaf today, and used loudspeakers to urge the defiant fighters to surrender and civilians to get away from the battle zone.

US warplanes attacked militia positions at sunset near the city’s ancient Shia cemetery, as fighting raged for a sixth consecutive day between Marines and gunmen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, witnesses said.

Plumes of smoke rose from the cemetery, where Sadr’s Mehdi Army have dug in and stored caches of weapons. Marines have thrown a tight cordon around the cemetery and the Imam Ali Shrine but have yet to make a full assault on fighters holed up in the sites, a move that would enrage Iraq’s majority Shias.

The fighting is the toughest test yet for the six-week-old administration of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who is also struggling with a spate of kidnappings aimed at pressuring foreign forces and firms to leave Iraq.

An Islamist website carried a videotape today purporting to show the beheading in Iraq of a man identified as an “Egyptian spy” working with US forces.

But in a relief for the cash-strapped government, Iraq resumed full oil production in its southern oilfields after quickly repairing a pipeline valve blown up yesterday by saboteurs, an Iraqi oil official said.

The official said both export lines from the fields in the Basra region now were exporting. The closure of one of the pipelines yesterday sent world oil prices to fresh record highs.

The radical Shia uprising in several cities across central and southern Iraq, the second in four months, has killed and wounded hundreds. Sadr’s militia attacked an Iraqi police checkpoint in Najaf, killing and wounding several uniformed men, one witness said. Clashes also broke out in a poor Shia Baghdad suburb called Sadr City as fighters brazenly ignored a curfew order.

Colonel Anthony Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Najaf, warned the militia to stop using areas around the Imam Ali Shrine, one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites, and the cemetery as a launch pad for attacks. “We will not allow them to continue to desecrate this sacred site, using it as an insurgent base of operations. There will be no sanctuary for thugs and criminals in Najaf,” Haslam said.

The health ministry said 10 people had been killed and 104 wounded in fighting over the past 24 hours in Baghdad, including Sadr City. An official said he had no toll from Najaf. US Marines say they have killed 360 Sadr loyalists since Thursday in Najaf, home to 600,000 people some 160 km south of Baghdad. Sadr’s spokesmen say far fewer have died.

Allawi has ordered Sadr's men to leave Najaf but the young firebrand cleric said he would never leave his hometown.

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