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Al-Sadr 'hands over keys to Najaf shrine'
As a tense calm returns to Najaf, aides of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have reportedly handed control of the Imam Ali mosque to Iraq's senior Shia religious authorities.
An al-Sadr's aide told Aljazeera on Friday that control of the religious site had been given to representatives of the country's most senior Shia figure.
"The keys of the Imam Ali shrine have been handed over to representatives of the Shia highest religious authority, Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani," said Ahmad al-Shaibani.
"This step means the administration of the Imam Ali mausoleum has been submitted to the religious authority in the city," he added.
The apparent move to transfer of control of the revered site comes after a day of warnings by the Iraqi interim government that al-Sadr's militia should withdraw from Najaf and disband, or face a decisive military assault.
At least 77 Iraqis have been killed and 70 wounded in fighting in Najaf over the past 24 hours, Iraq's Health Ministry said on Friday. Six of those killed in Najaf were police killed in a mortar attack.
The ministry added that 13 Iraqis have been killed and 107 others wounded in Baghdad, where US troops have raided the mainly Shia al-Sadr City district.
Najaf experienced an uneasy quiet on Friday - punctuated by occasional gunfire - hours after an overnight US bombing raid shook the historic area of the city.
On Thursday, the Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued a "final call" to al-Sadr and his fighters to leave the shrine - though he did not mention a deadline.
The US-backed premier faces a dilemma in trying to oust the al-Mahdi Army militia from their entrenched position within the Imam Ali mosque complex.
The site is widely revered by Muslims, especially Shia believers. An assault - particularly one involving US forces - risks igniting a dangerous backlash.
US officials have said their troops are unlikely take part in an attack on the mosque site - although US marines, tanks and aircraft have been clearly active around the area.
Television broadcasts on Friday showed two of the mosque's minarets were marked by shrapnel, while a clock in one of the towers had been damaged.
Meanwhile, al-Sadr's supporters holed up in the mosque site may have found a way out without having to surrender to Allawi and US-led occupation forces.
Al-Shaibani told Aljazeera al-Sadr's movement "has not closed the door towards negotiations with the Iraqi government to end fighting in Najaf but it is not ready to surrender."
Asked earlier if fighters of the al-Mahdi Army would leave the shrine if a deal was struck, al-Shaibani said: "Any fighter who wants to enter it will have to leave his weapon outside."
The Shia militiamen have been running the Imam Ali shrine since an earlier uprising in April.
Meanwhile, occasional clashes have continued. Our correspondent has reported that an intense artillery barrage hit the cemetery, the old sectors of the city and buildings around the Imam Ali mosque in the early hours of Friday.
Aljazeera + Agencies