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Fighting In Al-Najaf; Forces Poised To Attack Mosque

24 August 2004 -- Reports say U.S. aircraft have made strikes in Al-Najaf as hundreds of Iraqi and American troops brace for a possible assault on Shi'a militants holed up in the city's Imam Ali Shrine.

Iraqi security forces have moved to within 400 meters of the shrine after the interim government warned fighters inside that they will be killed if they do not surrender.

Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim al-Shalaan says these are the "last hours" for the standoff. He said if the fighters do not surrender, "we will wipe them out."

Ali Smeisim, a spokesman for radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, today said al-Sadr's militia members are ready to negotiate to end the fighting: "We are ready to negotiate to end this crisis and to put an end to the suffering of our oppressed people, based on the initiative of the [Iraqi] National Conference, with a representative of the interim government in a way that ensures the dignity of al-Sadr's followers."

In Baghdad, meanwhile, insurgents tried to assassinate Iraq's environment and education ministers in separate bombings, which killed five of their bodyguards.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military says it launched an airstrike against militant positions in Al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad. Clashes are also reported in the southern city of Amara between insurgents and British troops.

(international agencies)

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