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U.S. warplanes slam militia positions in Najaf

U.S. soldiers aim through the window of an abandoned hotel Monday in Najaf.
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U.S. aircraft pound militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.

Kidnappers release a journalist in Iraq.

Al-Sadr's militia still controls the holy mosque in Najaf.
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NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Intensified U.S. airstrikes hit targets around the Imam Ali Mosque late Monday and a huge fire lit the sky around the Shiite Islam shrine.

The standoff between U.S.-led forces and followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr continued into the night.

Explosions were heard in rapid succession in the vicinity of the old city of Najaf as a third consecutive night of bombardment by American warplanes commenced shortly before midnight (4 p.m. ET).

The strikes appeared to be more intense than the weekend's raids, and the brightly lit dome and minarets of the shrine were wreathed in smoke.

Members of the militia, known as the Mehdi Army, have been holed up in the mosque in the center of the south-central Iraqi city. The mosque is a holy site to Shiite Muslims.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Sheibani, an adviser to al-Sadr, said that one blast hit a wall around the shrine about midnight, inflicting several casualties. Al-Sheibani could not provide specific figures of those killed or wounded.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. military on those reports.

Militia members inside the shrine awaited a delegation of Shiite religious authorities earlier Monday, who had been expected to assume custody of the site.

Al-Sadr's representatives vowed to vacate the mosque as soon as possible after handing it over to the Shiite leaders. A representative of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had told al-Sadr's lieutenants they would not accept the keys to the site until the fighting calmed down.

Militants inside the mosque also said that Sunni and tribal leaders had offered to help negotiate a settlement -- an offer they said they accepted -- but the government had not responded.

Najaf Police Chief Ghaleb al-Jazaeri told reporters Monday that police had proof al-Sadr fled Najaf on August 15 and is now in Sulaimaniya, 164 miles (264 kilometers) northeast of the capital near the Iranian border.

Al-Jazaeri displayed a small piece of paper with handwriting on it that he identified as the proof.

CNN could not independently confirm the report.

The chief also said that Najaf police were in control of the city, including the vicinity of the shrine, and he urged all "human shields" to leave the mosque.

"We are willing to help everyone get home safely," al-Jazaeri said.

But a CNN crew that had left the shrine just before the chief's news conference said the mosque and the area around it remained in the control of al-Sadr loyalists, although the number of fighters had decreased.

Other developments

  • Iraqi insurgents Sunday evening attacked and killed a Turkish construction worker and two Iraqi colleagues en route to the northern city of Kirkuk near Tikrit, a U.S. military spokesman said. The victims were working on a construction project involving a Tigris River bridge.
  • A videotape aired Monday on the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera purportedly showing 12 Nepalese nationals taken hostage in Iraq last week. Nepalese Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Prakash Sharan Mahat said his government has asked Al-Jazeera to help it establish a relationship with the militant group behind the abductions. In the video, a masked man wearing military fatigues aimed a machine gun at the men. The TV network reported that the tape was from a group calling itself Jaish Ansar al-Sunna -- the same organization that posted a claim on a Web site Friday saying it had taken a dozen men hostage "for their cooperation with the United States in fighting Islam and its people."
  • Two days of pretrial hearings began Monday at a U.S. Army base in Mannheim, Germany, for four of seven U.S. soldiers charged in the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad. There is keen interest in Monday's hearing for Spc. Charles Graner, who has been charged with assault, mistreatment of prisoners, dereliction of duty, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, adultery and committing indecent acts. (Full story)
  • American journalist Micah Garen was released in Nasiriya and was in U.S. hands late Sunday after being kidnapped by insurgents in the southern Iraq city more than a week ago. Garen, 36, was kidnapped August 13 along with his Iraqi translator, Amir Doshe, in a busy Nasiriya market. Doshe also was released, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. (Full story)
  • A U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded Sunday when a roadside bomb hit their convoy in the northern city of Mosul, authorities said. Three Marines died in Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad, in weekend combat, according to authorities. Another Marine was killed Saturday in Al Anbar province when his Humvee hit a U.S. tank and flipped, coalition authorities said. The number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war is 964. Of those, 722 died in hostile action and 242 in "nonhostile" activity, according to the U.S. military.
  • CNN's Kianne Sadeq in Najaf, and Matthew Chance, Kevin Flower and Cal Perry in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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