"Keep fighting even if you see me a prisoner or a martyr. God willing, you will be victorious," the anti-US occupation leader said in a statement on Wednesday.

Al-Sadr said he still wanted Iraq to remain united and thanked "those who tried to resolve the crisis peacefully".

Al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi army fighters have been battling US-led forces in central and southern Iraq, including the city of Najaf, which has come under bombardment, with the latest fighting lasting for more than a week. The casualty toll is in the hundreds and still mounting.

On the ground in Najaf, renewed clashes broke out on Wednesday after a relatively calm night, with US forces apparently trying out a new line of attack.

 

"Keep fighting even if you see me a prisoner or a martyr. God willing, you will be victorious"

Muqtada al-Sadr,
Shia Muslim leader

The official spokesman for al-Sadr's office in Najaf, Shaikh Ahmad al-Shibani, interviewed by Aljazeera, said Al-Mahdi fighters were resisting US helicopters, not ground forces, "due to the failure of their (the US) soldiers in direct military confrontation".  

 

"The fighting is concentrated in the cemetery north of Najaf," al-Shibani said.

 

"However, the cemetery is under the control of Al-Mahdi army and no US forces are based there." 

 

Asked about the latest casualty figures, al-Shibani said that 20 Al-Mahdi army members had so far been killed and another 35 had been injured. 

 

In Baghdad, Aljazeera has reported that a leader of the Badr Brigades has been assassinated by unknown attackers in the Mahmudiya area, south of the capital.