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77 dead in Najaf mosque battle

A Mehdi Army fighter looks toward American military positions in Najaf.
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CNN's Kianne Sadeq finds defiance inside the Imam Ali Mosque.

Fierce fighting erupts after cleric's militia given last warning.

A look back at bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide

NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. forces Friday resumed offensive operations outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf in an effort to pressure fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are holed up in the mosque complex.

Iraqi Ministry of Health officials Friday said 77 Iraqis were killed and 70 were wounded in heavy fighting overnight, including six Iraqi police officers killed and 25 wounded.

Recent fighting in the city center has damaged the mosque and two of its minarets, according to a CNN producer who visited the compound.

"We've started to resume offensive operations in and around the outskirts of the holy shrine complex," Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division near Najaf told CNN Friday. "Our mission is to maintain the pressure against the Medhi Army and it looks like we're doing a pretty good job of it."

Heavy fighting thundered through the night in Najaf early Friday as U.S. and Iraqi forces battled al-Sadr's Mehdi Army fighters around the mosque complex.

The U.S. and Iraqi forces have "a full range of options," including storming the mosque, Miyamasu said, but he couldn't confirm if or when that would happen.

"I really can't get into the exact timeline, but what I can tell you is that we are continuing to do planning and preparation for continuous offensive operations to get Mehdi militias destroyed, to capture Muqtada al-Sadr and to turn this holy shrine back to the hands of the Iraqi people," Miyamasu said.

Only Iraqi security forces would be used in such a raid, he said, noting, "It's important for them to take the lead."

"The Imam Ali Mosque shrine complex is a very sensitive site for all concerned and we are working very closely with the Iraqi security forces to ensure that we have the right people going into the shrine and ensure that the least amount of damage is done to that site," Miyamasu said.

Meanwhile, an aide to al-Sadr early Friday told the Arabic-language network Al-Jazeera that the cleric has asked his supporters to hand over the keys to the shrine to the highest Shiite authorities in Iraq, a gesture symbolically putting the mosque in the hands of religious authorities.

There was no indication that such a handover had actually taken place.

Al-Sadr is refusing to negotiate on the latest Iraqi government ultimatum because, an aide said, he and his forces want to deal with the Iraqi National Conference delegation and not the interim government.

Thousands of militants loyal to al-Sadr are inside the mosque, and Iraqi officials have threatened to "liberate" the mosque in a military offensive if the forces don't leave.

"We are very determined that blood loss should be minimized," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said.

CNN Producer Kianne Sadeq, who went inside the mosque compound Thursday with a group of journalists, reported persistent sounds of mortars, gunfire and explosions. She said there was also a great deal of sniper fire.

The journalists were greeted by the Mehdi Army with cheers and chants of "We will not stand down!" Fighters flashed pictures of al-Sadr and many danced. Also inside the compound were women and children, most of whom appeared in a festive mood like the rest of the al-Sadr followers. (On the Scene: Inside the mosque)

Homes and businesses around the compound were heavily damaged. The streets were empty, and Sadeq described the area as a virtual ghost town.

"Everything outside of the mosque seems to be totaled," Sadeq said.

Fighting in Baghdad killed 13 Iraqis and wounded 107 overnight, with most of the casualties happening in Sadr City, the Iraqi Ministry of Health said

Airstrikes in Falluja

U.S. airstrikes on anti-aircraft positions in Falluja on Friday killed at least five Iraqis, according to a hospital official in the city.

Lt. Col. Thomas Johnson with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said airstrikes targeted sites that were firing on U.S. aircraft.

The first bombing happened around 1 a.m. (5 p.m. Thursday ET) in the western district of al-Sina'i, killing two people and wounding four others.

The second bombing run took place about 10 hours later and resulted in large secondary explosions, Johnson said, suggesting a weapons depot was close to the anti-aircraft position.

A Falluja hospital official told a different story, saying the airstrike hit a milk factory, killing three Iraqis and wounding two others.

Earlier, a U.S. C-130 gunship dropped bombs in eastern Falluja, after insurgents fired small arms and anti-aircraft weapons at the gunship overnight Thursday.

They were also seen firing mortars at a U.S. military base there. Minutes later, the C-130 dropped bombs in the industrial and military neighborhoods, a CNN stringer reported.

Other developments

  • A leading bioethicist charges in a prestigious British medical journal that U.S. military medical personnel are complicit in abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and suggests an inquiry into their behavior in places such as Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, is in order. The Pentagon denies the charges. (Full story)
  • The United Nations held events in several nations Thursday in memory of victims of the terrorist bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad a year ago. The attack killed 22 people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injured more than 100 others. In addition to Baghdad, U.N. officials held observances in New York, Switzerland and Jordan.
  • Also Thursday, a mortar round struck the roof of a building housing the office of John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, wounding two people, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said. Negroponte was not in the building, the spokesman said. The building is in Baghdad's Green Zone, a compound of governmental headquarters.
  • U.S. government officials studying the tape of a Western journalist apparently threatened with death in Iraq believe the man "is being held captive" and were working to get his release, a senior State Department official said Thursday. (Full story)

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