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Marines seize Najaf heart

Najaf, Aug. 12 (Reuters): US Marines backed by tanks and aircraft seized the heart of Najaf today in a major assault on Shia rebels that drove world oil prices to record highs.

Warplanes and helicopters pounded militia positions in a cemetery next to the Imam Ali mosque while US forces stormed the home of a radical cleric at the centre of the week-long uprising that has killed hundreds in seven cities. Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was believed to be holed up in the mosque along with hundreds of his Mehdi Army, witnesses said.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi urged the militiamen to lay down their arms and leave the mosque, a site sacred to millions of Shias around the world.

The US-led assault in such a holy city for Iraq’s majority Shia community could spark a firestorm for Allawi, who needs to crush a rebellion that has disrupted vital oil exports and threatened to undermine his six-week-old government.

“This government calls upon all the armed groups to drop their weapons and rejoin society. We call upon all the armed men to evacuate the holy shrine and not to violate its holiness,” Allawi said in a statement read by an official.

Oil prices hit new highs on the offensive, which the militia has warned could trigger more attacks on oil infrastructure. US light crude rose 65 cents to $45.45 a barrel, the highest price in 21 years of trade on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Late in the afternoon, US warplanes bombed targets near Sadr’s house as Marines battled militiamen in the area. Black smoke billowed as combatants exchanged heavy fire. US forces stormed Sadr’s house just before nightfall. Marines also blocked entry to the Imam Ali Mosque.

In the southeastern city of Kut, at least 72 people were killed in US air raids and fighting between Iraqi police and the Mehdi Army today, the health ministry said.

Wary of igniting more anger, the US military said the assault would exclude the Imam Ali mosque. Government officials said only Iraqi forces would disarm militia inside.

But the Mehdi Army raised the prospect of a bloody battle, vowing no surrender and saying Sadr was leading the defence at the shrine and vast cemetery, one of West Asia’s largest.

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