TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called on Muslim countries Friday to hold an urgent meeting to discuss the “catastrophe” in Iraq, particularly the 2-week standoff in the holy city of Najaf.

Khatami urged the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference to hold an emergency summit and said immediate action should be taken to end the escalating violence in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, where militiamen loyal to militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.

“What is happening in Iraq is a spiritual and human catastrophe and immediate action must be taken to stop the spread of the catastrophe, particularly in Najaf,” Khatami said in a telephone conversation with the head of the OIC Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

On Friday, the Najaf uprising, centered on the revered Imam Ali Shrine, appeared to be drawing to an end as militants from al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army removed weapons from the holy site.

The militants had been using the shrine, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest, as a hideout while attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces. Earlier Friday they offered to give control of the shrine to Shiite religious authorities, who accepted the offer in principle.

It was unclear how Friday’s apparent easing of the crisis in Najaf would affect Khatami’s summit call.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi urged countries neighboring Iraq to hold an urgent meeting on the Najaf crisis.

Kharrazi first raised his meeting idea in a telephone call to Jordanian counterpart Marwan Muasher on Wednesday, but Jordan’s response was not immediately made public.

The Syrian government supported Kharrazi’s call, Syria’s official news agency quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry official as saying. Syria has been a loud opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

In Tehran, Iranians staged street protests Friday over the violence in Najaf, the third holiest city to Shiite Muslims after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and condemned “the slaughter of the Iraqi people and the desecration of holy sites and cities of the country by the U.S. military in Iraq.”

The demonstrators also described Iraq’s interim government as “illegitimate” and a “puppet” of the United States, IRNA reported, and urged Muslim countries to dispatch a military force to defend Najaf’s holy sites.

In his conversation with OIC chief Badawi, who is also Malaysia’s prime minister, Khatami said the Iraqi interim government was facing a difficult situation in Najaf and that Iran was interested in seeing a stable Iraq.

“Allowing these conditions to continue and keeping silent in the face of these events will create grater problems for us,” Khatami warned.

It was unclear if a meeting would be held, but Iran’s call reflects the growing concern in the Middle East over violence in Iraq and, in particular, Najaf.

AP-ES-08-20-04 1056EDT

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