Explosions heard around Iraqi mosque
'Final call' issued for militia to leave Shiite shrine
CNN's John Vause has the latest on fighting in Najaf.
A look back at bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
Allegations surface that Iran is funding Muqtada al-Sadr.
NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Hours after the Iraqi interim prime minister issued a "final call" for Muqtada al-Sadr's forces to disarm, a series of explosions erupted late Thursday near the Imam Ali Mosque and intense gunbattles raged around the Shiite shrine overnight.
It was not clear if forces were advancing on the mosque compound where thousands of al-Sadr's militia members have been holed up for more than two weeks in a standoff with U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces.
An aide to al-Sadr told the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera that the radical Shiite Muslim cleric has asked his supporters to hand over the keys to the shrine to the highest Shiite authorities in Iraq, a gesture symbolically putting the mosque in the hands of religious authorities.
On Wednesday, al-Sadr said in a letter to the Iraqi National Conference that he was willing to comply with its demands to order his followers to leave the mosque, disband his Mehdi Army and "enter into the mainstream political process."
The 1,000-member conference met this week in Baghdad to choose a 100-person interim body that will advise and oversee the newly installed Iraqi interim government.
On Thursday, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued a "final call" for al-Sadr's followers to disarm and vacate the mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam.
An al-Sadr spokesman said the cleric rejected those demands and had agreed to negotiate with only the National Conference, not with the interim government. Al-Sadr is wanted by the government in connection with the 2003 killing of a rival cleric.
Iraqi officials have threatened to "liberate" the mosque in a military offensive if the militants don't leave. The huge mosque compound is surrounded by Iraqi security forces supported by U.S. troops.
"We are very determined that blood loss should be minimized," Allawi said.
"As we confront their constant delay and inclination to do evil, we will categorically not allow ... militias," Allawi told a news conference in Baghdad. "This is the final call for them to disarm."
Allawi said Iraqi authorities wanted to hear "directly from al-Sadr himself." On Tuesday, the cleric refused to meet with an eight-person delegation from the National Conference sent to Najaf to try to end to the impasse. He has instead sent letters and issued statements through spokesmen. Cease-fire efforts over the weekend also failed.
Allawi said the delegation was ready to go back and talk with al-Sadr if the cleric personally stated he was willing to accept the conditions.
When "we hear from him," the interim government will push ahead in developing a truce and seeing that the demands are carried out, he said.
"We left the doors open," Allawi said. "He must abide by the resolution of National Conference."
Allawi said that if al-Sadr wishes to become a leader in Iraq, he should partake in the political process and run as a candidate in the January election for a transitional national assembly.
Interim Iraqi Minister of State Kasim said Iraqi forces have special intelligence that will allow them to get al-Sadr without destroying the shrine.
Reports of fighting
Intense fighting could be seen during the night, with flashes of explosions lighting up the sky and the sound of gunfire echoing through Najaf's streets.
CNN's Kianne Sadeq, who was briefly inside the mosque compound earlier Thursday with other journalists at the invitation of al-Sadr's militia, reported sounds of mortars, gunfire and many explosions.
Two of the mosque's minarets have been damaged in recent fighting, and al-Sadr loyalists said a clock in one of the towers caught fire, Sadeq reported.
Homes and businesses around the compound were heavily damaged, she said, describing the area as a virtual ghost town. (On The Scene: Inside the mosque)
Arabic-language television news networks reported pitched battles earlier Thursday.
Al-Arabiya said U.S. troops attacked from three locations. The fiercest fighting took place in what is called "Najaf Sea," or Abu al-Kheir Street, about 1,000 meters (1,093 yards) behind the Imam Ali Mosque, the network said.
Al-Jazeera, talking to sources on the phone, reported that U.S. planes targeted the Doha Hotel at one point.
Elsewhere in the city, militants struck the main police station with three mortar rounds, killing at least four Iraqis and wounding 14 others, according to police and a Health Ministry official.
Other developmentsThe United Nations held events in several nations Thursday in memory of victims of the terrorist bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad a year ago. The attack killed 22 people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injured more than 100 others. In addition to Baghdad, U.N. officials held observances in New York, Switzerland and Jordan.Also Thursday, a mortar round struck the roof of a building housing the office of John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, wounding two people, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said. Negroponte was not in the building, the spokesman said. The building is in Baghdad's Green Zone, a compound of governmental headquarters.U.S. government officials studying the tape of a Western journalist apparently threatened with death in Iraq believe the man "is being held captive" and were working to get his release, a senior State Department official said Thursday. (Full story)Two Polish soldiers were killed and five injured when their vehicles crashed early Thursday as they were trying to escape an ambush in the central Iraqi city of Hillah, a military spokesman said. (Full story)An Army report will recommend that approximately two dozen military intelligence personnel face possible disciplinary action in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, military sources said. (Full story)