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Combat operations suspended around Imam Ali Mosque

Government delegation aims for negotiations

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CNN's Kianne Sadeq finds defiance inside the Imam Ali Mosque.

Fierce fighting erupts after cleric's militia given last warning.

A look back at bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide

NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Combat operations in Najaf were temporarily suspended late Friday to allow political negotiations with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to go forward, U.S. military officials reported.

A high-level delegation from the interim Iraqi government is expected to arrive in Najaf overnight, officials said.

The delegation will try to meet with al-Sadr in an effort to bring a peaceful end to the tense standoff around the Imam Ali mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam.

Earlier Friday, Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said Iraqi police seized control of the mosque. But later, Iraqi police said they had not.

There have been no signs of activity around the mosque all day Friday, according to CNN producer Kianne Sadeq, who is nearby.

U.S. officials at the Pentagon said there is no sense that supporters of al-Sadr have pulled out of the mosque; and that U.S. and Iraqi forces still surround it.

A senior aide to al-Sadr said the Medhi Army has not yet handed over the keys to the mosque since no high religious authority has been found to take them.

U.S. and Iraqi forces surrounded the mosque in an effort to pressure al-Sadr's fighters, who were holed up in the complex.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Ministry of Health officials said 77 Iraqis were killed and 70 were wounded overnight in heavy fighting.

The dead included six Iraqi police officers.

Recent fighting in the city center has damaged the mosque and two of its minarets, according to CNN's Sadeq.

Al-Sadr has refused to negotiate on the latest Iraqi government ultimatum because, an aide said, he and his forces want to deal with a delegation from the Iraqi National Conference and not one from the interim government.

At the Iraqi National Conference, more than 1,000 religious, political and civic leaders are working to elect a 100-member council to advise and oversee the interim government until elections in January.

Iraqi officials have threatened to "liberate" the mosque in a military offensive if al-Sadr's militia forces don't leave.

"We are very determined that blood loss should be minimized," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said.

Sadeq, who went inside the mosque compound Thursday with a group of journalists, reported persistent sounds of mortars, gunfire and explosions. She said there was also a great deal of sniper fire.

The journalists were greeted by the Mehdi Army with cheers and chants of "We will not stand down!" Fighters flashed pictures of al-Sadr and many danced. Also inside the compound were women and children, most of whom appeared in a festive mood like the rest of the al-Sadr followers. (On the Scene: Inside the mosque)

Airstrikes in Falluja

U.S. airstrikes on antiaircraft positions in Falluja on Friday killed at least five Iraqis, according to a hospital official in the city.

Lt. Col. Thomas Johnson with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said the airstrikes targeted sites that were firing on U.S. aircraft.

The first strike happened around 1 a.m. (5 p.m. Thursday ET) in the western district of al-Sina'i, killing two people and wounding four others.

The second took place about 10 hours later and resulted in large secondary explosions, Johnson said, suggesting a weapons depot was near the antiaircraft position.

A Falluja hospital official said the airstrike hit a milk factory, killing three Iraqis and wounding two others.

Earlier, a U.S. C-130 gunship fired on insurgents in eastern Falluja, after insurgents fired small arms and antiaircraft weapons at the gunship overnight Thursday. They were also seen firing mortars at a U.S. military base there.

Other developments

  • A claim posted on an Islamist Web site from a purported militant group Friday said 12 Nepalese nationals have been taken hostage in Iraq. In the statement, the group named the men and said they were captured for cooperating with the United States.
  • The Iraqi Ministry of Health said Friday that fighting in Baghdad overnight had killed 13 Iraqis and wounded 107, with most of the casualties happening in Sadr City. The area is a Shiite neighborhood and a focus for the activities of al-Sadr supporters.
  • The CIA's final report on its search for weapons of mass destruction might include a reference to how Saddam Hussein regime's WMD capabilities would have evolved if the U.S. invasion hadn't occurred, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said Friday. The 100-page report "will not be speculative," Mansfield said, and any reference to future capabilities will not be the focus of the report.
  • An aide to al-Sadr told CNN that he has been "assured" that French-American journalist Micah Garen would be released by his kidnappers either Friday or Saturday. In video broadcast on the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera, Garen said, "I'm being treated well."
  • Two soldiers from the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division died just before 6 p.m. Friday when a roadside bomb exploded next to their patrol in the city of Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, a U.S. Army spokesman said. Also Friday, the U.S. military confirmed the deaths of two U.S. Marines in Al Anbar province fighting on Wednesday and Thursday. The deaths bring to 957 the number of U.S. troops killed since the Iraq war began, including 715 listed as hostile deaths.

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