NAJAF, Iraq - Supporters of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr remained in control of the Imam Ali Mosque on Saturday as negotiations continued over terms for handing the shrine over to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. No weapons were visible inside the mosque, according to reporters allowed inside, but armed fighters of al-Sadr's Al Mahdi army still stood guard in the maze of narrow streets nearby. At a greater distance from the shrine, U.S. forces with tanks and armored vehicles continued to encircle the area, witnesses said.
"We are winning," al-Sadr supporters chanted inside the shrine, displaying portraits of their leader and enthusiastic confidence in front of television cameras. Others held banners that read: "Where is the bullet that will grant me martyrdom?"
U.S. troops crept closer to the mosque early today, launching a late-night attack on parking garage and office complex directly west of the shrine. It marked the first time U.S. forces have assaulted the structures, which intelligence officials believe Mahdi army fighters have been using as a launching pad for mortar attacks and to store weapons.
About 250 soldiers in nearly 40 armored vehicles -- including three tanks -- descended upon the western edge of the complex, drawing heavy resistance from militants.
On Saturday, an officer at an Iraqi police station near Najaf's Old City said police had arrested 40 suspected militants leaving the area around the mosque. Streets in at least one district near the Old City were largely empty, with residents apparently afraid to venture out. Iraqi police patrols of two to five vehicles sometimes drove through the streets, firing warning shots into the air.
Little fresh information emerged about talks between al-Sadr's forces and Sistani's aides on terms for a hand-over of titular control of the mosque. Sistani's side was believed to be insisting that everyone leave the mosque, and that its doors be sealed and its contents inventoried, but there apparently were disagreements about when and how an inventory should be carried out.
U.S. military officials said they were monitoring negotiations over the mosque, but not taking part in the discussions. There was a growing sense among some military officials and Iraqi leaders that a strike against the mosque might not be necessary and instead the militia can be attacked at other strongholds, such as today's assault on the parking garage.
"The militia can be broken without taking the mosque," one U.S. military official said.
At a Baghdad news conference Saturday evening, Hussein Sadr, a distant relative of the cleric who helped lead a mediation effort last week, appealed for the militia to leave the shrine quickly in order to "keep the sanctity of our holy sites, to ease the suffering of Najaf and to quiet the situation."
"We are in a race with time," Hussein Sadr said. "I call on Muqtada al-Sadr -- and all our brothers and sisters -- to understand the depth of this crisis."
Muqtada al-Sadr's whereabouts were unknown, but some Najaf residents said they believed he was no longer in the mosque or even in the Old City.
Al-Sadr aide Ahmed Shibani told reporters that Al Mahdi militia would continue to guard the mosque -- apparently from outside the compound -- after any hand-over to higher religious authorities. He also said Sistani's side needed to form a committee to conduct the proposed inventory of the shrine's contents.
The mosque "is a place that contains invaluable treasures and enormous sums of money," Shibani said. "Therefore, there must be a special committee to receive the place." Al-Sadr's forces were still awaiting a response from Sistani to the committee proposal, Shibani said.