Najaf battered by fresh US raids

Hopes of a peaceful resolution to the bloody siege of a revered Shiite shrine are fast fading as the fighting escalates and hundreds of refugees continue to flee the city.

For more than an hour air and artillery strikes hit several streets which lead to the city’s famous Imam Ali shrine.

Flames could be seen shooting into the sky near the golden-domed mausoleum.

The presence of the Mehdi Army at the gates of the compound and in the immediate surroundings appears to have been scaled back over the past 24 hours.

But militiamen were thought to have redeployed in nearby streets.

The latest air raids could be a prelude for a fresh push by Iraqi government forces and the US army.

But the US military had no comment on the operation and it was difficult to verify whether the holy site itself had been hit or whether there had been any casualties.

Sadr aides said Friday they would hand over control of the shrine to representatives of Shiite Islam’s most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but the agreement was still in limbo.

“There is no fresh development… There is contact between them and us but there are differences on forming the committee due to the security situation,” said Sadr spokesman Sheikh Ahmed Shaibani.

He was referring to proposals for a panel to carry out a full inventory of the shrine’s contents before the handover.

The Mehdi Army has occupied the Imam Ali complex since a first uprising in April.

Despite the simmering conflict in Najaf, a resumption of crude exports from southern Iraq helped calm world oil markets.

The benchmark Brent North Sea crude fell 14 cents to 43.40 dollars per barrel in London.

New York’s main contract, light sweet crude oil for delivery in October, dropped 19 cents to 46.53 dollars per barrel in early deals.

A US military official said it could take up to 10 years to crush the insurgency.

At least nine people, including a Turk, were killed in a string of deadly roadside attacks, in fighting across Iraq, US military and police sources said.

There was still no news of French reporters Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who were last seen in Baghdad on Friday and are thought to have been kidnapped on their way to Najaf.

Italian reporter Enzo Baldoni has also been missing since Thursday.

A body thought to be that of his driver was discovered near Najaf.

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