BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued a “final call” Wednesday to the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to surrender his weapons and vacate the city of Najaf, as hopes faded that al-Sadr would soon comply with the terms of a peace plan.

Hours after Allawi issued his ultimatum, heavy explosions rocked Najaf as U.S. warplanes went into action, pounding targets around the Imam Ali shrine where al-Sadr is holed up with his militia supporters, reports from Najaf said.

The explosions lit up the night sky in what witnesses in the city described as the fiercest bombardment yet of the two-week-old battle.

It wasn’t clear whether the fighting heralded the final onslaught against the shrine that the Iraqi government has threatened, but officials made it plain that they are growing impatient with al-Sadr’s continued defiance of their calls for him to withdraw from the mosque.

On a day that saw messages and demands bounce back and forth between al-Sadr’s aides and government officials, Allawi called on al-Sadr to appear in person to confirm his apparent acceptance of a peace plan proposed by a delegation from Iraq’s national conference.

An al-Sadr aide in Najaf said al-Sadr responded to the government’s latest ultimatum by sending him a text message containing the words “victory or martyrdom.” The aide, Haidar al-Tourfi, said he took that to be a rejection.

Efforts to deal with al-Sadr have been complicated by the fact that he usually communicates through a parade of spokesmen and aides who make frequent and often contradictory appearances on Arabic news channels to convey al-Sadr’s position.

“We have not heard directly from al-Sadr himself. We have heard from elements and aides around him but we did not hear from him directly,” Allawi said. “We would like to hear from him before finally moving to the next phase.”

“This is the final call to them to disarm, vacate the holy shrine, engage in political work and to consider the interests of the homeland,” Allawi said.

The call for al-Sadr to make a TV appearance was endorsed by Hussein al-Sadr, the cleric who led the delegation to Najaf to present the peace plan to the Muqtada al-Sadr.

“We need now to have practical proof of his good intentions,” he said. “I do not ask Muqtada al-Sadr for anything except to appear on the TV screen to say he is complying with the demands of the Iraqi national conference.”

Al-Sadr refused the meet the delegation dispatched to Najaf on Tuesday by the national conference to present the three-point plan, which calls for al-Sadr to vacate the shrine, disarm his militia and enter politics.

But the next day, he sent a message through his aides to his office in Baghdad saying he accepted the plan. The message was read out at Iraq’s national conference, which met in Baghdad earlier this week to elect a parliament.

A variety of aides made television appearances Wednesday to explain al-Sadr’s position. Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, said al-Sadr would not appear on TV because it was “not the logic” of al-Sadr to do so.

If mediation fails, he warned, “the battles will engulf all of Iraq and every Iraqi city.”

Ahmed Shaibani, another aide, told Al Jazeera television that al-Sadr was open to all forms of negotiation and urged delegations from the United Nations and the Vatican to visit.

Al Arabiya television showed a letter obtained from yet another aide purporting to contain a message from al-Sadr urging his followers to vacate the shrine. But the letter added that al-Sadr would not disband his militia, the government’s top priority.

The government also sent out conflicting messages, with the minister of state, Qassim Dawood, telling reporters in Najaf that “military action is imminent.”

Hours later, Allawi said at a news conference in Baghdad, with Dawood at his side: “We are determined to explore all possible avenues for the sake of Iraq.”

“I can’t put a date yet,” he added, when asked how long the government would give al-Sadr to comply.

Earlier in the day, seven police died in Najaf when their station was hit by at least one mortar round fired from the direction of the shrine.

CNN video footage from inside the shrine showed defiant al-Sadr supporters vowing to fight to the death to defend al-Sadr, as well as a small number of women and children waving victory signs. The government says al-Sadr has gathered a number of civilians around him to act as “human shields” in a gesture reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s policy of using human shields to deter American attack.

As the two-week confrontation has dragged on, it has become increasingly apparent that any attempt to storm the shrine and eject al-Sadr by force would risk a backlash that could engulf Iraq in more violence and win more support for al-Sadr’s resistance movement.

Suggesting that the government still hopes to find a peaceful way out of the dilemma, Defense Minister Hazem al-Shaalan said: “My military are ready for action and they are ready now, but we are waiting for government policy to give Muqtada Sadr more time.”

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In violence elsewhere, rebels reportedly set fire to the headquarters of Iraq’s Southern Oil Co. in Basra after a threat by al-Sadr’s supporters to attack Iraq’s oil infrastructure if the United States does not withdraw from Najaf.

A group calling itself the Martyrs’ Brigade threatened to kill a French-American journalist, Micah Garen, unless the fighting in Najaf stops. Garen was kidnapped in Nasiriyah earlier this week.

There were also sporadic clashes in Sadr City, a stronghold of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, where U.S. forces advanced for a second day to reclaim territory that had been held by the militia.

There were a few firefights and occasional explosions from roadside bombs detonating as American forces passed. But the resistance was light, military officials said.

“They’re probably figuring they’ll hole up and live to fight another day,” said Capt. Randall McCauley, an intelligence officer involved in the attack. “We have the initiative. We’re killing a lot of fighters. They realize this.”

The military said Wednesday that it had killed 50 fighters on the first pushed into the slum. The Health Ministry said Thursday that eight people had died.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed in the fighting in Sadr City on Wednesday, both from gunshot wounds in separate incidents, said Capt. Brian O’Malley, an Army spokesman.

Also in Baghdad, a mortar hit the roof of the U.S. Embassy in the fortified International Zone, injuring an American, according to embassy officials.


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