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Najaf shrine hit by shrapnel

Najaf, Aug. 23 (Reuters): US Marines and Shia militiamen fought fierce battles around a shrine in Najaf today in some of the heaviest fighting since the 20-day-old rebellion erupted.

At least 15 explosions, many sounding like artillery shells, rocked the area near the Imam Ali mosque, where the Mehdi Army fighters of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have holed up in defiance of the US-backed interim government. Gunfire echoed through the alleyways near the shrine while US tanks kept up their encirclement around the city's heart.

Shrapnel fell in the courtyard of the gold-domed mosque, whose outer walls have already been slightly damaged in fighting that has killed hundreds and driven oil prices to record highs.

News that Iraq’s crude exports were back to normal today for the first time in two weeks could calm jittery oil markets. Exports had been sharply reduced due to sabotage and threats from militants. Oil prices rose to nearly $50 a barrel last week but have since eased.

Sadr’s whereabouts are unknown. Police in Najaf said they had information that he had fled to Sulaimaniya, in Kurdish northern Iraq. But Sadr’s aides and local government officials in Sulaimaniya denied the report.

Overnight, a US AC-130 gunship blasted rebel positions after a weekend of fruitless talks between Sadr’s aides and religious authorities to hand over the keys of the shrine to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most respected Shia cleric.

In an apparent relaxation of Sadr’s demand that the Mehdi Army guard the mosque even once it is handed over, a top Sadr aide said Shia authorities would be responsible. “The religious establishment will be in charge of security and they should have their own security force,” said Sheikh Ahmed al-Sheibani, also a Mehdi militia commander.

Speaking to reporters inside the mosque, Sheibani said the cleric’s fighters would become “normal citizens” if US forces returned to their bases and the southern city became stable. The uprising is a brazen challenge to interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who took over from US-led occupiers two months ago and faces the daunting prospect of getting Iraq ready for elections in January.

His government has tried to defuse the crisis with a mix of threats to storm the shrine and peace offerings.

Sadr, the face of Shia resistance in Iraq, has at times appeared to accept the government’s demands only to spurn them later. Allawi has insisted Sadr disarm his militia and take his grievances to the political arena.

Serious damage to the Najaf mosque could enrage millions of Shias and fuel hostility to the US presence in Iraq.

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