Aide: Al-Sadr ready to negotiate in Najaf
Cleric's backers face Iraqi ultimatum: Get out or be wiped out
A U.S. Army sniper takes position Tuesday near the Imam Ali Mosque.
Mehdi Army "fighters" include 10-year-olds -- with guns.
CNN's Diana Muriel has a rare look inside the Imam Ali Mosque.
U.S. aircraft pound militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.
NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Shortly after Iraq's interim government threatened Muqtada al-Sadr's militiamen to leave a Najaf mosque, an al-Sadr aide said Tuesday that the cleric is ready to negotiate a cease-fire and end the standoff.
"We want a stop to this bloodshed in the city of Najaf," said the aide, Sheikh Ali Smaisem. "We will negotiate with the same delegation from the [Iraqi] National Conference, and we want them to bring a representative from the government."
Smaisem was referring to a delegation of eight Iraqi dignitaries who visited Najaf last week and were unable to broker a peaceful end to the crisis. U.S. and Iraqi forces have been fighting the militia for nearly three weeks.
He also said that al-Sadr's followers want to negotiate to protect the pride of their movement.
But a new round of explosions shook the area around the Imam Ali Mosque late Tuesday, hours after interim Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Sha'alan threatened a raid on the shrine if al-Sadr's followers do not vacate the compound.
Sha'alan said Iraqi forces will move Tuesday evening to seal off the mosque and will use loudspeakers to encourage al-Sadr's supporters to leave.
"We are in the last hours. This evening, Iraqi forces will reach the doors of the shrine and control it and appeal to the Mehdi Army to throw down their weapons," Sha'alan said at a news conference, according to Reuters. "If they do not, we will wipe them out."
Iraqi officials have issued similar ultimatums in recent days, threatening to take strong action but then not doing so.
Tuesday's warning came as the most intense fighting in days raged between U.S. forces and members of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia.
U.S. tanks rolled through the streets around the Shiite Muslim shrine as artillery, machine-gun fire and mortars rattled through the heart of the city. At times, thick black smoke billowed above Najaf's Old City area.
Marine spokeswoman Carrie Batson said troops inside an AC-130 gunship aircraft witnessed members of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army firing a rocket from the shrine compound.
She said she believed the U.S.-led forces must have hit a building containing ammunition, which may have ignited a fire.
"We are doing everything we can to prevent damage to the shrine or holy sites, and with that intent we incorporate into our operational planning extensive measures to safeguard these locations," Batson said.
Al-Sadr's representatives have vowed to vacate the holy site, parts of which date back to the 16th century, as soon as possible after handing it over to Shiite leaders. But they said a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told them the Shiite leadership would not accept the keys to the shrine until nearby fighting calmed.
Bombs target Iraqi ministers
Separate car bombings early Tuesday, apparently targeting two Iraqi ministers, killed five people and wounded four others -- all bodyguards of the officials, police said. A suicide bomber also died in one of the blasts.
Iraqi Education Minister Sami al-Mudhaffar and Environment Minister Miskhat Moumin escaped the attacks unharmed, according to their families.
A convoy was en route to pick up al-Mudhaffar in western Baghdad when one of the bombings took place. The attack killed two of his bodyguards and wounded two others.
About the same time, Moumin was leaving a housing compound in southern Iraq -- where many of Iraq's ministers live -- when the convoy was hit in a suicide car bomb attack, killing three of her bodyguards and wounding two others.
Other developmentsAn Islamist group in Iraq says it has abducted an Italian and will kill him unless Rome announces within 48 hours that it will pull out of the country, Al-Jazeera television reported. The Arabic-language network aired video Tuesday of the man who it said had been taken hostage by a group calling itself the Iraqi Islamic Army. (Full story)Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison was "an environment of criminality and violations" of international law and Army regulations before the military police officers charged in the prisoner abuse scandal arrived there, an attorney for one of the MPs said Tuesday at hearings in Germany. (Full story) An attack on a Red Crescent convoy Tuesday carrying aid to Najaf wounded four workers, and two of the injured are in critical condition, Iraqi police and the Health Ministry said. The attackers, riding in a white Opal and a black BMW, hit a vehicle convoy carrying six Red Crescent workers in the Latifiya district 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of Najaf. Three ambulances were set on fire and destroyed; a fourth vehicle escaped the attack.A U.S. soldier was killed Monday evening when his patrol came under fire in Baghdad, the Coalition Press Information Center said. Two other soldiers were wounded in the rocket-propelled grenade attack. The number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war now stands at 966. Of those, 724 died in hostile action and 242 in "nonhostile" activity, according to the U.S. military.
CNN's Matthew Chance and Kianne Sadeq in Najaf, and Kevin Flower and Cal Perry in Baghdad contributed to this report.