BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – U.S. warplanes blasted insurgent positions in Sadr City, and American ground troops pushed into the sprawling Baghdad slum Thursday in a new operation aimed at disarming the militia of a renegade anti-U.S. Shiite cleric.

Despite violence sweeping the country, Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is insisting elections promised for January must be held on time, an aide said.

With car bombs, shootings and kidnappings escalating and several cities effectively under insurgent control, there are concerns that Iraq will not be ready to hold a vote by the Jan. 31 deadline. But Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people, are eager to hold elections since they expect to dominate whatever government emerges.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, in a speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Thursday, vowed not to let violence derail the election timetable. He said 14 or 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces “are completely safe.”

However, at least six provinces – Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Nineveh – have been the scene of significant attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi authorities in the past month. The only areas not plagued by bloodshed are the three northern provinces controlled by Kurds. The situation in many areas, however, is unknown since journalists’ travel is restricted by security fears.

Allawi also condemned the beheading of two Americans, and relatives of a British hostage pleaded for his freedom. The appeal came after U.S. and Iraqi authorities refused militants’ demands to release female Iraqi prisoners.

American warplanes and helicopters were again in action over Sadr City on Thursday, following a day of fierce clashes between U.S. troops and fighters loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraqi doctors said one person was killed Thursday and 12 were wounded, many of them children.

Militia fighters returned fire with machine guns and an American Bradley fighting vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and caught fire, according to a U.S. military report. It was not clear if there were casualties.

The aim of the Sadr City operation, dubbed “Iron Fist 2,” is to subdue al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia by seizing weapons caches and detaining or killing his lieutenants, said Maj. Bill Williams of the 1st Cavalry Division.

“The main problem is that he has the militia,” he said. “Our goal is to pressure him to disband and disarm.”

U.S. commanders have said the Mahdi Army has dug into the alleyways of Sadr City – a district named after al-Sadr’s late father. Although al-Sadr has indicated he might join the political process, he refuses to disband his militia – a move Allawi and the Americans say would exclude him from running in the January elections.

Al-Sadr – who vehemently opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq and has frictions with al-Sistani’s more moderate clerical hierarchy – is just one of the security problems. Mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents have unleashed a wave of attacks in recent weeks.

In violence Thursday, gunmen killed a senior official of Iraq’s North Oil Co. in the northern city of Mosul and attacked an oil well near Baghdad and a pipeline in the south.

The U.S. military also announced the death of a U.S. Marine the day before in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

Hamed al-Khafaf, an aide to al-Sistani, told The Associated Press that the poor security situation should not be taken as a pretext to postpone the vote.

Asked if al-Sistani is worried that the elections might be delayed, al-Khafaf said, “what we say is we stress that the elections should take place on time and be supervised by the United Nations.”

Al-Khafaf said al-Sistani wants the elections “to be held in a way that Iraqi people will be represented with all the sects and ethnic groups.” But he denied that the cleric might withdraw his support for the election if his concerns are not addressed.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that al-Sistani’s aides have contacted U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi expressing concern over a possible delay. Al-Sistani was also worried that efforts to put together a unified list of candidates from the biggest political parties would harm Shiite interests, the paper said. Under Saddam Hussein, Shiites were dominated by Sunnis for decades.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Thursday he had been told by Brahimi that the envoy had had no word from al-Sistani “directly or indirectly on the subject.”

Al-Sistani holds enormous influence among Iraq’s Shiites and has been a constant proponent for elections. His objections have twice derailed two U.S. political blueprints for the country’s future over the past year.

After the United States handed sovereignty to an interim Iraq government on June 28, al-Sistani broke a three-month silence and issued an edict giving tacit backing to Allawi’s administration – giving it desperately needed legitimacy.

But al-Sistani insisted the leadership must secure full sovereignty for Iraq, restore security, hold elections by Jan. 31 as provided in the interim constitution and ease the hardships facing Iraqis.

Al-Khafaf said al-Sistani wants U.N. supervision of the vote to ensure it is “credible and transparent.”

The United Nations has been reluctant to commit more than 35 election officials because of the danger of the assignment. In August 2003, the U.N. mission chief and 21 other people were killed in a car bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

But al-Khafaf stressed that the security situation should not be taken as an excuse for delay.

“What if this security situation went on for 10 years?” he said.

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