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Rebel Cleric Vows to Maintain Resistance to Iraqi Government

Al-Sadr said at a news conference in Najaf, “The Mahdi Army and I will keep resisting. I will stay in Najaf and will never leave.”

“I will stay here until my last drop of blood.”

For the fifth day, Marines and members of al-Sadr’s militia, the al-Mahdi Army, engaged in brutal gunfights in Najaf, near the Imam Ali mosque, one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims.

Gunfire and explosions reportedly blasted throughout Najaf as Marines battled with the al-Mahdi in an effort to drive militiamen out of the city’s holy cemetery, according to various news agencies.

U.S helicopters flew above the scene, and a American tank drove within 400 yards of the Imam Ali Shrine.

The toll of Americans killed in the fighting rose to five, with at least 19 wounded in the fifth day of fighting in Najaf, an unnamed U.S. official told the Associated Press. Additionally, four Iraqi national guardsmen were killed and 12 wounded.

U.S. military officials said 360 insurgents were killed in Najaf, but al-Sadr’s militia insists the number of deaths is much lower.

The ensuing violence poses a serious problem for the Iraqi interim government and its interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as they work to put down the largest uprising since the June 28 turnover of power.

Allawi visited Najaf on Sunday and called for the militants to stop fighting.

“We think that those armed should leave the holy sites and the (Imam Ali Shrine compound) as well as leave their weapons and abide by the law,” Allawi said.

But al-Sadr dismissed Allawi’s demand, declaring the al-Mahdi Army’s defiance at a press conference held at the Imam Ali Shrine.

“Resistance will continue and increase day by day,” al-Sadr said. “Our demand is for the American occupation to get out of Iraq. We want an independent, democratic, free country.”

Violence flared throughout Iraq on Monday as well.

In the village of Balad Ruz, north of Baghdad, a suicide car bomb detonated outside the home of a village official on Monday. The blast killed six people and wounded 17, including deputy governor for Diala province Akil Hamid al-Adili, the assumed target of the attack.

The deputy governor was in stable condition and being treated at a coalition medical facility, military spokesman Maj. Neal O’Brien told the AP.

British military forces battled with al-Mahdi Army members in the streets of Basra and at least one British military vehicle was set on fire Monday.

A military spokeswoman described the situation as “extremely tense” and one resident told Reuters by telephone, “Basra is deserted.”

According to witnesses, reported by Reuters, masked rebels patrolled the main streets of Basra and set up checkpoints. And the al-Mahdi Army threatened to occupy local government buildings if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf.

More battles broke out in Sadr City, a district in Baghdad that houses 2 million people. The government imposed a 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. curfew indefinitely.

The political scene was just as stormy Monday following the weekend announcement that an Iraqi judge had issued arrest warrants for Ahmad Chalabi, former Pentagon favorite and Iraqi politician, and his nephew Salem Chalabi, the U.S.-appointed lawyer supervising Saddam Hussein’s trial.

The judge issued the warrant against Ahmad Chalabi in connection with counterfeiting money. Salem Chalabi said the charge alleged he had threatened a man who was later killed, Reuters reported.

Both men said the charges were politically motivated and groundless.

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