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Marines, insurgents fighting in Najaf cemetery

Day after vowing to fight to death, Shiite cleric calls for U.N. help

Militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr fight againt coalition troops in Najaf Tuesday.
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Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr says he will fight till the end in Najaf.

Iraq's interim prime minister makes a surprise visit to Najaf.

Ahmed and Salem Chalabi say they will fight criminal charges.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Fresh fighting has been reported in the holy city of Najaf, where U.S. Marines and Iraqi security forces have been battling fighters loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for six days.

One day after al-Sadr vowed to fight American troops to the death, he issued a statement Tuesday saying he would welcome help from the United Nations in solving the crisis.

"I have no problem cooperating [with the U.N.]," the statement said. "We hope for this interference during these hard times to help us establish a world of peace and prosperity far away from wars and occupation."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Saturday that the organization was "ready to extend its facilitating role to the current crisis."

The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit took over Monday as the lead multinational force in Najaf. Members of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia are holed up in the city's Imam Ali Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.

Marines clashed with militia members Tuesday in the Wadi Al Salam cemetery, seizing weapons in its catacombs and mausoleums, according to the coalition press office.

"Let the [militia members] clearly understand that [Marines] and Iraqi security forces will not allow them to seek sanctuary and hijack this holy cemetery from the people of Iraq," said Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the Marine unit.

"We will not allow them to continue to desecrate this sacred site, using it as an insurgent base of operations. There will be no sanctuary for thugs and criminals in Najaf."

The cemetery has many caves and multistory mausoleum-type buildings. It is about 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) long and 1.86 miles (3 kilometers) wide.

Capt. Carrie Batson, a Marine spokeswoman, said the cemetery fighting has been sporadic and that troops used speakers attached to Marine vehicles to warn residents to avoid hot spots.

"We also are telling anti-Iraqi forces to leave the city peacefully or their fate will be death," Batson said.

Ali al-Yassiri, a political spokesman for al-Sadr, pleaded Tuesday for humanitarian and Islamic organizations to come to the battle-torn city.

"We call on all Islamic organizations to intervene right away to protect the holy land of Najaf and especially the Imam Ali Shrine," Yassiri said, accusing the Najaf police chief of "torturing all civilians by pulling out nails and teeth, the same way Saddam [Hussein] used to."

In an appearance in the city Monday, al-Sadr said, "I will keep on resisting, and I am staying in Najaf and won't leave it till the last day of my life. My stay is to defend Najaf, the holiest place."

U.S. officials have accused al-Sadr of fomenting unrest. He is wanted by an Iraqi court in connection with the killing of a rival cleric last year.

Adnan al-Zurufi, the governor of Najaf, gave permission Monday for military operations in the previously restricted area surrounding the shrine, a spokesman said.

At a briefing Monday afternoon, a senior U.S. commander said al-Zurufi approved the operations in coordination with the Iraqi National Guard.

The commander estimated that more than 360 of al-Sadr's fighters have been killed since last week, when al-Zurufi asked multinational forces to put down the uprising.

The commander said an estimated 2,000 militia fighters were in the cemetery and shrine.

Attacks threatened

A militant group in Baghdad has issued a taped video statement threatening attacks Tuesday on Iraqi government institutions and warning civilian employees to stay home.

The tape was obtained Monday by CNN. It was shot in Sadr City by a previously unknown group calling itself the Brigades of Divine Anger.

The statement was issued after a roadside bomb rocked central Baghdad early Tuesday as a U.S. military convoy passed through the area, witnesses said. Two U.S. soldiers were injured in the blast near the Baghdad Hotel.

The video shows militants holding mortar launchers, mortar rounds and apparent rocket launchers.

The group listed areas that have been targeted in Baghdad in the past two days, including the so-called Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi ministries, some U.S. bases, two hotels and four police stations are located.

Other developments

  • Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon wants the Pentagon to explain why soldiers in a unit of the Oregon National Guard were told to stand down after they discovered dozens of prisoners who apparently had been beaten by Iraqi jailers inside a Baghdad compound. The incident, which took place June 29, the day Iraqi sovereignty was restored, was reported Sunday by The (Portland) Oregonian newspaper in an account accompanied by graphic photographs. Wyden recalled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's promise after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that the U.S. military would not condone or commit torture. "Aren't we in effect looking the other way? We don't need the world to say the U.S. is indifferent to torture," said Wyden, who asked Rumsfeld for an investigation. Pentagon officials said the Iraqi interior minister was told of the incident and that U.S. troops monitoring the compound have reported no violence since. "Nobody is downplaying the photos or anything like that," a Pentagon official said. "They got the right people involved to stop the activity."
  • An official Iranian news agency reported Tuesday that Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has been invited to make an official visit to Iran. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi made the announcement, the Islamic Republic News Agency said. There have been tensions between the neighboring countries since they were at war in the 1980s. Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite, and Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently that there is concern among officials about Iran's statements and activities regarding Iraq. (Full story)
  • Fighting in the southern city of Basra has stopped, but the situation was described Tuesday as "tense," according to a spokesman for British forces. One British soldier was killed Monday in a gunbattle with insurgents. (Full story)
  • The trucking company negotiating with Islamist militants for the release of seven employees seized in Iraq said Tuesday it is using "new intermediaries." Three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian working for the Kuwait and Gulf Link Co. were abducted last month by a militant group that refers to itself as the Islamic Secret Army Black Banners Brigades.
  • CNN's Matthew Chance in Najaf, and Kevin Flower, Eden Pontz and John Vause contributed to this report.

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