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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tanks Close In on Najaf Shrine

NAJAF, Iraq -- U.S. tanks advanced to within 800 meters of the Imam Ali mosque in the Iraqi city of Najaf on Sunday after talks on surrendering control of the shrine at the center of an 18-day siege ran into trouble.

Hours earlier, a U.S. military AC-130 gunship unleashed rapid cannon and Howitzer fire on positions held by rebels loyal to firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who remain in control of the gold-domed shrine in defiance of the Iraqi government.

North of Baghdad, a suicide car bomb blew up near a convoy carrying Iraqi officials near the town of Baquba, killing two people and wounding eight, a police officer said.

The U.S. operation in Najaf came as negotiators tried to end a Shiite Muslim rebellion led by Sadr's al-Mahdi fighters that has helped push world oil prices to record highs.

Al-Mahdi rebels fired mortars at U.S. positions and the sound of gunfire crackled from near the shrine inside the old city, where the situation remained tense, a witness said.

The attacks on Najaf overnight lit the area with white flashes. Smoke drifted over the old city near rebel positions, and flashes were seen on the outskirts of the city.

Despite an offer by the renegade Sadr to hand the shrine over to the Shiite cleric establishment, radical militiamen remained defiantly in control of the compound and the warren of streets leading to it.

The uprising, which has killed hundreds and touched off clashes in seven other cities, is a challenge to the authority of the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who took over from U.S.-led occupiers two months ago.

Any takeover of the mosque by security forces could infuriate Iraq's majority Shiite population and further destabilize the country ahead of scheduled elections in January. The mosque is the holiest Shiite shrine in Iraq.

The car bomber near Baquba, a hotbed of anti-U.S. resistance, appeared to have been targeting Ghasan al-Ghadren, the town's deputy mayor, police said. The official was slightly wounded, the Health Ministry said.

Seeking a way out of the standoff in Najaf, talks between Sadr's representatives and Iraq's top Shiite authorities were continuing with a view to handing the shrine over to the control of Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, a top Sadr aide said.

Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, is in London recovering from surgery. He normally lives in Najaf.

But the aide, Ali Smeisim, said the talks had hit a snag over a request by Sadr's side that Sistani send a delegation to take an inventory of precious items in the mosque -- thought to include jewelry, relics and carpets -- to head off any claim that Sadr's men had stolen anything from the shrine.

"We were told by people in Sayyed Sistani's office that they cannot form the committee in the current circumstances. We told them that Sayyed Sistani has representatives in Najaf ... and we believe a committee can be formed," Smeisim told reporters.

Sadr's aides had earlier said that his militia would continue to guard the mosque after any handover, defying calls from Allawi to disband and vacate the mosque.

A Sistani spokesman in London told Al-Arabiya television "no specific time has been set" for a handover of the mosque's keys.

In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry said two French journalists, George Malbrunot of Le Figaro and Christian Chesnot of Radio France International, were missing in Iraq and had not been heard from since Thursday.

The Italian government said free-lance Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, who had been working in Najaf, had been missing since Thursday and his driver had reportedly been killed.