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Iraqi, US Forces Launch Major Offensive to Oust Insurgents in Najaf - 2004-08-12

Iraqi and U.S. Forces have launched a major assault against militia loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. U.S. forces have stormed his home in the holy city of Najaf. Iraq's government says it will go ahead Sunday with a national conference that will choose an interim assembly. The United Nations approves extending its mission in Iraq for another year.

A government official reads out a statement by Iraq's Prime Minister calling on the insurgents to surrender. He also calls on the armed fighters to evacuate Najaf's holy Shi'ite shrine, drop their weapons and join the country's political process.

The call to end the rebellion coincides with a major U.S.-Iraqi offensive to end a week-long rebellion by militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. U.S. forces have stormed the cleric's home in Najaf but he was not there.

Other Shi'ite clerics have called for an end to the fighting in the holy city. So have Arab neighbors and Iran. Lebanon's top Muslim cleric has criticized the military operations around one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines. They fear Iraqi forces may raid the Imam Ali shrine to oust insurgents who have fired mortars and other weapons from inside the mosque.

Egypt has called on both sides to use dialogue to end the conflict. The Arab League has warned of serious repercussions if Muslim holy places in Najaf are desecrated.

U.S. and Iraqi forces also are battling al-Sadr supporters in Baghdad and other cities. The radicals have threatened to attack the country's oil pipelines if U.S. forces do not pull out of Najaf.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. administration is supporting the Iraqi government's strategy for stabilizing the country. "The government of Iraq has strong views about the need to reassert its authority and we are in close consultations with the government of Iraq about how we can support it in dealing with this situation. In our consultations we are doing what we can to support a resolution of this situation that is in line with what the long-term objectives of the government of Iraq are," he said.

The crackdown on the insurgents has sent world oil prices soaring for the second time in two days, despite Saudi Arabia's announcement it was ready to pump more oil to try to ease market jitters.

In another development, Iraq's interim government says it will open a national conference on Sunday. Some one thousand delegates are expected to select a 100-member assembly to oversee the interim administration and organize elections for a more permanent government.

Iraq expert Amatzia Baram of the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace said it will be an important step in Iraq's reconstruction. "I think it will be another phase in the long, very long way of endowing the new Iraq with a public legitimacy. It's a long way. We're not yet there. We won't be there very soon. But maybe this is another stage," he said.

And, in New York, the U.N. Security Council has voted unanimously to extend the U.N. mission in Iraq for another year.

Security Council representative Munir Akram said "this is obviously an indication of the continued commitment of United Nations and of the Security Council to play a role in bringing peace and stability to Iraq."

So far, the U.N. staff has not been able to resume their activities in Baghdad because of deteriorating security conditions.