- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Iraqi security forces advanced on a key shrine in Najaf yesterday after the government warned Shi’ite rebels inside that they would be killed if they did not surrender.

“God willing, we’ll be moving in tonight,” a commander of one unit told Reuters, adding that about 500 Iraqi troops had been deployed to the area around the Imam Ali mosque, the first time government forces had entered the battle zone.

After nightfall, a U.S. AC-130 gunship joined an attack on Shi’ite militant positions, its rapid-fire cannon sounding like a jackhammer as it hit targets. Blasts were heard throughout the night, and U.S. helicopters circled overhead.

By early today, U.S. military vehicles had moved to within 20 yards of the gate of the shrine, Agence France Presse reported.

Makeshift barricades set up to protect the entrance to the compound were torched, as flames licked upward into the early-morning sky, AFP reported.

Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said the Mahdi’s Army fighters loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr faced death unless they ended their rebellion, which has sparked fighting that has killed hundreds, helped drive oil prices to record highs and sparked clashes in several other Iraqi towns and cities.

“We are in the last hours. This evening, Iraqi forces will reach the doors of the shrine and control it and appeal to the Mahdi Army to throw down their weapons,” he told reporters.

“If they do not, we will wipe them out.”

Al-Sadr aide Ali Smeisim told reporters in Najaf the Mahdi’s Army was willing to hold talks to end the fighting.

“We are ready to negotiate to put an end to the suffering,” Mr. Smeisim said in Najaf.

But another al-Sadr aide mocked Mr. Shaalan’s threat — the latest in a series of government ultimatums.

“Let him throw his warnings in the trash along with his previous statements about last chances in the last three weeks,” Aws al-Khafaji told Al Jazeera television.

“This is a new night of holy jihad against tyrannical forces trying to attack our sanctities and honor,” he said. “What will Shaalan tell himself if morning comes and the Mahdi Army is still defending the holy shrine?”

The Iraqi advance was backed by U.S. aircraft that fired missiles and strafed militants dug in at a cemetery near the mosque, where most of the fighters have holed up during the three-week uprising in the city.

With fighting raging, U.S. tanks reinforced positions along the southern flank of the mosque. Smoke rose from the area and automatic gunfire crackled.

In Baghdad, insurgents tried to assassinate Iraq’s environment and education ministers in separate bombings that killed five of their bodyguards and wounded more than a dozen people, officials said.

Environment Minister Mishkat Moumin said she survived a suicide car-bomb attack on her convoy in Baghdad. Education Minister Sami al-Mudhaffar was unhurt after a roadside bomb hit his convoy in the city, officials said.

A group linked to al Qaeda ally Abu Musab Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attempt on Ms. Moumin and said it would not miss next time, according to a statement posted on the Internet.

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