Al-Sadr spokesman Hazim al-Aaraji dismissed Allawi's call and said the fighters would never leave Najaf. He told Aljazeera that on the contrary, tens of thousands of Iraqis were headed to Najaf.

   

"We hope that this thing ends as soon as possible," Allawi said on Sunday at the start of a visit to Najaf, the scene of fierce fighting between al-Sadr's fighters and US occupation troops since Thursday.

   

"I believe gunmen should leave the holy sites quickly, lay down their weapons and return to the rule of order and law," he said.

 

Talks held

   

Allawi hopes for a quick end to
fighting in Najaf and Sadr City

Allawi, accompanied by his interior and defence ministers, held talks with the city's governor, witnesses said.

 

At a news conference earlier on Saturday, he said the Najaf troubles were being fomented by criminals hiding behind al-Sadr's name.    

 

"I have been having positive messages from Muqtada al-Sadr, that's why we don't think the people who are committing the crimes in Najaf and elsewhere are his people," Allawi said.

   

"I invite from this platform Muqtada al-Sadr to participate in the elections next year ... the political process is open for everybody, everybody who abides by the rule of law," the interim leader had said earlier.

 

Dualism charge

 

Al-Aaraji told Aljazeera: "We have repeatedly said that al-Mahdi is a public army.

 

Al-Sadr's spokesman expects a
crackdown on fighters on Sunday

"The Shia authorities have not ordered us to leave Najaf. On the contrary, we received reports stating they are satisfied with the current situation.

 

"There is dualism in Allawi's speech. He first praised al-Sadr but then called his followers 'terrorists'," he said. 

 

Al-Aaraji said the prime minister would give orders on Sunday to crack down on al-Sadr's followers. 

 

"However, al-Sadr's army seeks martyrdom and will never leave Najaf," he said. "Tens of thousands of Iraqis are now heading towards Najaf," he added. 

 

Bloodshed

 

Asked about the recent events in Najaf, al-Aaraji said the bloodshed was caused by the Iraqi government which had asked the US occupation forces to hit the Shia and their holy sites and to crack down on al-Sadr. 

 

"I invite from this platform Muqtada al-Sadr to participate in the elections next year"

Iyad Allawi,
Iraq interim prime minister

"Let Allawi know that all Iraqis are under the command of al-Sadr," he said. 

 

"Al-Mahdi Army in Najaf is not an attacker, it acts in self-defence. We seek peace and we are always committed to the truce, but what is taking place in Najaf now is a breakdown of this truce," he said.

 

Hundreds of people have been killed or wounded in fighting since Thursday in Najaf, the holiest Shia city in Iraq.