NAJAF, Iraq – Protected by about 100 guards, Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) visited the war-shattered city of Najaf on Sunday, calling on Shiite militants to lay down their weapons after days of fierce clashes with U.S. forces.
Nearby, gunfire and explosions echoed through the streets, marking the fourth day of clashes in this holy city and other Shiite areas of Iraq. Hours later, U.S. helicopter gunships pounded the massive Najaf (search) cemetery, a militant hideout and the scene of much of the fighting, witnesses said.
Scattered attacks across the country Sunday killed at least 19 Iraqis and wounded dozens of others, including four U.S. soldiers. A U.S. soldier also died Saturday in "a non-combat related incident," the military said Sunday.
Throughout the night, explosions — apparently from mortar barrages — rocked a downtown Baghdad neighborhood where foreign journalists and contractors stay. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
As the violence continued, the government reinstated the death penalty in its latest effort to beat down the 15-month-old insurgency — marked by car bombings, sabotage, gunbattles and kidnappings — that has destabilized the country and held back reconstruction efforts.
"It is our human obligation toward our people and country, who are being threatened day and night by the terrorists and organized crime, to bring stability and security to them," Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin said.
Also Sunday, Iraq's chief investigating judge said arrest warrants had been issued for Ahmad Chalabi, a former Governing Council member with strong U.S. ties, on counterfeiting charges, and for his nephew Salem Chalabi, head of the Iraqi tribunal trying Saddam Hussein, on murder charges. He is a suspect in the June murder of a top finance ministry official.
Meanwhile, militants said they had abducted Faridoun Jihani (search), the Iranian consul to the Iraqi city of Karbala. The kidnappers, who called themselves the "Islamic Army in Iraq," (search) warned Iran not to interfere in Iraq's affairs, but did not threaten Jihani or make any demands, according to Al-Arabiya television.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed Jihani disappeared Wednesday night on the road from Baghdad to Karbala.
Jihani, shown in a video sent by the militants to Al-Arabiya, would be the second senior diplomat taken hostage in recent weeks, following the brief kidnapping of Egyptian diplomat Mohammed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb last month. Scores of other foreigners have been kidnapped as leverage to force foreign troops and businesses from the country.
Most troubling for the government, however, was the Shiite violence that began Thursday after the collapse of a series of truces that ended a two-month uprising in early June. The U.S. military says hundreds of militants have been killed in the latest violence; the militiamen put the number far lower.
Though a deadline for militants to withdraw from Najaf, the center of the worst violence, expired Saturday, masked gunmen still patrolled the streets of the old city Sunday. The Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) also controlled the Imam Ali Shrine compound, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam.
The U.S. military said it had renewed an offensive Sunday against Mahdi Army militants who were using the city's massive cemetery as an operations base and weapons depot. Witnesses said the military attacked the cemetery with helicopter gunships. Military spokesmen said they were taking care to minimize damage.
Many nearby residents fled their homes. Power was out in the old city, which was surrounded by U.S. troops and Iraqi forces, residents said.
At least two Iraqi national guardsmen were killed and 15 people injured during Sunday's fighting, hospital officials said.
Allawi, who was protected by a mix of U.S. forces, foreign security contractors, Iraqi national guardsmen and Iraqi police, firmly rejected compromise with the militants during his brief visit Sunday morning.
"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," he said. Some 400 yards away, gunfire and explosions rang out from clashes. U.S. helicopter gunships circled overhead.
"The situation will be defused soon," he said.
Allawi's delegation did not meet with al-Sadr, and the cleric's aides rejected his demands.
"We hoped his visit would have calmed the situation and that he would have come with something new, but he did not do that," said Ahmed al-Shaibany, an al-Sadr aide. "He confronted the Mahdi Army with bad talk, especially his call to leave the city and turn over their weapons, which is strange and can never happen."
In violence in other Shiite areas, a U.S. Army OH-58 observation helicopter made an emergency landing in Baghdad near the Sadr City neighborhood after being attacked, said U.S. Capt. Brian O'Malley of the 1st Brigade Combat Team. No casualties were reported.
The helicopter, with its cockpit destroyed and covered in dust, was hauled away by the military.
The Mahdi Army later attacked a Baghdad district council building with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, wounding three U.S. soldiers, O'Malley said.
Clashes in Sadr City killed four people and injured seven Sunday, the Health Ministry said.
In the southern city of Amarah, a gunbattle between al-Sadr militants and police killed four Iraqis and wounded 23 others, the Health Ministry said.
Iraqi officials said they had reluctantly reinstated the death penalty, suspended by the U.S. occupation administration, as an important weapon against militants and hard-core criminals.
"This is not an open door to execute anyone and everyone, or people whom the government dislikes. This is not Saddam's law," Minister of State Adnan al-Janabi said.
It was unclear how the new death penalty law would affect Saddam, currently awaiting trial on war crimes charges. It was also unclear whether the death penalty would apply to people who had committed crimes during its suspension.
The announcement came a day after the government issued a limited amnesty to persuade minor criminals to abandon violence.
In other violence Sunday:
— Mortar explosions in central Baghdad late Sunday wounded at least 11 people.
— Insurgents attacked a U.S. patrol in Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad, wounding one U.S. soldier, said Maj. Neal O'Brien, a military spokesman. The troops killed one attacker.
— Also in Muqdadiyah, masked gunmen attacked police, killing one policeman and three civilians, said local police chief Col. Amer Kamel.
— Near Samarra, U.S. soldiers killed two people who were trying to plant a roadside bomb and wounded a third.
— A roadside bomb exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing one woman and injuring three children, police said. Another roadside bomb, in Baqouba, killed an Iraqi National Guard soldier, a hospital official said.