(AP) NAJAF, Iraq – U.S. and Iraqi forces battled militants in Najaf on Tuesday and Iraqi National Guardsmen surrounded the holy city’s Imam Ali Shrine, where insurgents loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been holed up for weeks. Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said the guardsmen will use loudspeakers to urge al-Sadr’s followers to evacuate the shrine and surrender.
“If they don’t … listen to reason, then certainly there will be a very simple operation, a very simple raid,” Shalaan told al-Arabiya television.
“The decisive hours are near,” he said.
When asked if the operation could happen Tuesday he responded: “We will give the humanitarian option a greater chance … but if we run out of patience, then this will mean that the hour for the military plan has come.”
Witnesses in Najaf said the Iraqi forces accompanied U.S. troops into the Old City for the first time in recent days on Tuesday and were stationed about 200 yards from the shrine. Clashes between militants and the combined U.S. and Iraqi forces rang out and plumes of black smoke rose above the city.
“Today, they complete the operation of encircling the shrine compound,” Shaalan said.
Iraqi officials have said that any raid on the shrine would be conducted by Iraqi forces. The presence of U.S. troops at the holy site would infuriate the nation’s Shiite majority.
In Baghdad, assailants targeted the convoys of the interim government’s ministers of environment and education in two separate bombings Tuesday, officials said. Neither of the ministers was hurt, but at least five people were reported killed.
In one attack, a car bomb exploded in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Qadisiyah as Environment Minister Miskhat Moumin was passing through in a convoy, ministry spokesman Dalal Ali said. Moumin escaped unharmed, Ali said.
Four people were killed and two others were injured in that blast, police and hospital officials said.
In a second attack around the same time in the western district of al-Khadra, a roadside bomb exploded as a convoy of vehicles was headed to pick up Education Minister Sami Mudhafar, the police said.
The education minister was not in the convoy at the time, the police brigadier said. The blast killed one of Mudhafar’s bodyguards and wounded two others, he said.
Late Monday, U.S. warplanes bombed the area of the Old City, and fires lit up the night sky, witnesses said. Ahmed al-Shaibany, an aide to al-Sadr, said shrapnel from the attack hit the shrine’s golden dome, one of its minarets and the compound’s outer wall.
The U.S. military denied damaging the shrine and said an air crew saw militants in the compound fire a rocket that clipped one of the walls and explode 10 yards outside.
“We are not doing anything that could have caused damage to the shrine,” Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said.
There was no independent confirmation of damage to the shrine, but violence earlier Monday ripped a chunk out of the outer wall of the compound. Explosions throughout the day shook the Old City, which is a mix of streets and narrow, maze-like alleys at the heart of much of the fighting. streets and some were seen leaving Najaf. Militant medical officials said at least two insurgents were killed and four wounded.
Al-Hakim Hospital said two civilians were killed and two others injured, but more casualties were reported in the Old City and could not be reached by emergency workers, said hospital employee Hussein Hadi.
Al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army fighters are behind the uprising, has not been seen in public for many days, and police drove around Najaf with loudspeakers declaring he had fled toward Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq (news – web sites). Al-Sadr’s aides denied that.
“Muqtada al-Sadr is still in Najaf and is still supervising the operations,” Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, the head of al-Sadr’s office in the southern city of Nasiriyah, told Al-Jazeera television.
U.S. warplanes reportedly struck the volatile city of Fallujah early Tuesday. Witnesses said it was unclear what the target was, but they reported flames and smoke in southern neighborhoods.
The U.S. military, which routinely bombs what it describes as insurgent strongholds in the city 40 miles west of Baghdad, had no immediate comment.
In Baghdad, assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. patrol on Monday night, killing one soldier and wounding two others, the military said. The troops were evacuated to a U.S. military hospital, where one of the soldiers succumbed to his wounds. As of Monday, 958 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
The Najaf fighting, which began Aug. 5, has killed at least 40 Iraqi policemen, eight U.S. soldiers and dozens of civilian bystanders. The U.S. military says it has killed hundreds of al-Sadr fighters, though the militia says its casualties have been far lower.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, “The government of Iraq and Prime Minister Allawi have said that the Mahdi militia should accept their terms for engaging in the political process and vacating the shrine.”
He added that the Bush administration has made clear that U.S. forces will not be involved in a move against the holy sites.