Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s interim prime minister, on Thursday issued what he called a final warning to Moqtada al-Sadr, the renegade Shia cleric, to quit a holy shrine in the southern city of Najaf and disband his militia.
The latest threats came as Mr Sadr vowed to seek “martyrdom or victory”. Fighting continued to rage throughout central Najaf as US tanks advanced to within 200 metres of the shrine of Imam Ali where Mr Sadr is believed to be holed up.
Three mortar bombs hit the main police station in Najaf killing at least seven people, most of them policemen according to Reuters news agency, while US combat aircraft dropped four bombs on the city.
The violence drove benchmark crude oil futures prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange to more than Dollars 48 a barrel for the first time, with early afternoon trading at Dollars 48.20, up 93 cents.
Mr Sadr’s warning on Thursday was the latest in a series of seemingly contradictory statements he has made about his intentions. On Wednesday a spokesman had said his forces would lay down their arms and quit the shrine, although this brief conciliatory gesture appeared to be simply an effort to buy time.
Speaking in Baghdad, Mr Allawi said that a peaceful resolution to a two-week confrontation was still possible but demanded that Mr Sadr state publicly his agreement to the conditions of a peace initiative laid out by a national conference.
“This is the final call for them to disarm, vacate the holy shrine, engage in political work and consider the interests of the homeland,” Mr Allawi said on Thursday.
The rhetoric has now reached a point where it will be impossible for Mr Allawi’s government to back down without sacrificing all of its credibility. But a direct military assault, particularly if it involves US troops, risks angering Iraq’s majority Shia community and inflaming public opinion in the wider Arab world.
On Wednesday the four-day national conference held in Baghdad heard from one of Mr Sadr’s spokesmen that the militant cleric was prepared to accede to the demands of a peace delegation.
Earlier the conference had sent the delegation to Mr Sadr to set out the terms of a peace initiative but he refused to meet the team.
Western diplomats and Iraqi government officials are urgently grappling with the question of what is motivating Mr Sadr, whose forces have taken huge casualties in several months of fighting with US forces.
Jaber Habib, a political scientist at Baghdad University, believes Mr Sadr is trying to emulate Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hizbollah movement.
Four years ago, Hizbollah expelled the Israeli army from the south of Lebanon after years of fighting. Mr Nasrallah’s movement has morphed from a guerrilla force into a powerful political party in Lebanon.
“He (Mr Sadr) wants to lead the resistance to occupation and to take over the leadership of the poor.
He is the only Iraqi leader to gain support not just from the Shia but from the Sunnis and from neighbouring countries,” Mr Habib said.
The situation in Najaf was mirrored in a renewed offensive by US forces inside Sadr City, the Shia slum in eastern Baghdad which is Mr Sadr’s power base and may present a more military intractable problem than even Najaf.
Ahmed al-Shaibani, one of Mr Sadr’s many spokesmen, yesterday insisted that his leader was willing to comply with the conditions set by the national conference but said that a ceasefire had to be in place to implement the proposals.
Other spokesmen reiterated that they were prepared to die inside the mausoleum complex.
But Hussein al-Sadr, the head of the delegation sent by the national conference who is also a distant relative of Moqtada al-Sadr, yesterday urged his namesake to comply with the terms of the initiative unconditionally.