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Iraqi Leader Issues 'Final Call' to Najaf Militants - 2004-08-19

Iraq's interim prime minister has issued a "final call" for Shiite militants in the city of Najaf to leave a shrine they have been occupying for weeks. The statement comes a day after their leader, radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, sent word that he was willing to disarm. The Iraqi leader sounds skeptical that the promise is for real.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi says he welcomes reports that Moqtada al-Sadr has agreed to pull his militants out of the shrine, disarm them and enter the political arena.

But the prime minister also says he wants to hear the promise from Mr. al-Sadr's own mouth. Mr. Allawi said, "He has to do it personally."

"As we confront their constant delaying and inclination to do evil, we will categorically not allow armed militias," he added. "This is the final call for them to disarm, vacate the holy shrine and engage in political work."

Over the last two days, several senior Iraqi officials have warned that a military offensive is imminent if the cleric does not surrender and withdraw his militia, the Mahdi Army, from the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam.

While the prime minister also talked tough, he denied that he has ordered a direct strike on the mosque.

"The door is still open for a peaceful end to the standoff in Najaf," he said. "I have not issued at all any orders to attack the mosque. That is why we, God forbid, if anything happens, we put the blame fairly and squarely on the militias who are trying to take the holy shrines hostage, and are using human shields in Najaf. That is why we are delayed taking decisive and final action."

The Iraqi national conference, which ended Wednesday, sent a delegation to Najaf to ask the radical cleric to withdraw from the shrine, disarm the Mahdi Army and turn it into a political party. Mr. Allawi said the group could return to Najaf to continue its mediation.

The man who led that delegation is the cleric's distant relative, Hussein al-Sadr. At a separate news conference, he also urged his kinsman Moqtada al-Sadr to explicitly state his intention to leave the shrine, by speaking to Arab satellite TV networks.

"What is asked of him?" he asked. "The short answer is to confirm his acceptance [of the conditions] in a way everyone in Iraq can hear."

There was heavy fighting in Najaf Thursday, including a mortar attack on a police station that killed at least eight people. Clashes also erupted in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, and both the insurgents and the U.S. military say roughly 50 people have been killed there since Wednesday.