Iraq?s PM urges militants to lay down weapons

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Iraq's interim prime minister Iyad Allawi visited Najaf on Sunday and called on insurgents to lay down their weapons as fighting continued in the south between coalition forces and supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric.

Last week?s uprising spread from the Shia shrine city of Najaf to Basra, Amara, Nasiriya and Baghdad's Sadr City and Shoula districts. Both sides continued to blame each other for the hostilities.

Mr Allawi made his visit amid tight security and said there were no plans to arrest Mr Sadr, but he said there would be no negotiations with him until the cleric?s militia laid down their arms. An aide to Mr Sadr, said: ?We are trying to defend our country. We are not going to leave Najaf or any other city. ? AbuThar al-Kinani added: ?The occupiers are the ones who should leave Najaf and the rest of Iraq.?

To add to the interim government's difficulties, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most influential Shia cleric, flew to London on Friday for medical treatment. Though a critic of many aspects of the US occupation, the frail and reclusive Mr Sistani has opposed violence. His absence from Iraq coincides with growing pressure on Mr IAllawi, prime minister, to lay down a comprehensive security strategy.

Fighting in Najaf has been the heaviest since a ceasefire was agreed in June. Colonel Anthony Haslam, US chief of operations in Najaf, said on Friday his forces had fought more than 2,000 insurgents in the ?close terrain? of the city cemetery, where hundreds of militia had gathered. He said about 300 insurgents were estimated killed over the two days, although a spokesman for Mr Sadr said only 36 militiamen had been killed.

The cemetery covers some 15 sq km, and houses mausoleums, caves and underground rooms. Both US and pro-Sadr forces were supposed to have pulled out under the June ceasefire. Col Haslam said Iraqi forces were unable to cope with sustained attacks: ?The poor Iraqi police force do not have a chance. They are attacked and they are outgunned.? The US said insurgents had come from Baghdad and the south, and included foreign fighters. The British military said events in Najaf had inspired Sadr supporters further south.

?In Basra in particular we had a declaration of a jihad [holy war],? said Major Ian Clooney, who said militia had targeted British forces with mortars and small arms fire overnight and early on Friday. Militia had overrun four to five minor police stations on the outskirts of Amara, but British forces said they had fortified the central police station with no opposition. Italian forces also engaged Sadr militia around the bridges of Nasiriya.

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