The U.S. military and Iraqi forces prepared Wednesday for a major assault to crush a weeklong uprising by Shiite militants in the holy city of Najaf, as the firebrand cleric leading the insurgents exhorted his followers to fight on even if he is killed.
Also Wednesday, an Islamic Web site carried a videotape that appeared to show militants in Iraq beheading a man they identified as a CIA agent. A U.S. official said on condition of anonymity that CIA officials have accounted for all employees and no one is missing. U.S. officials were working to determine if the video was authentic, the official said.
The planned offensive could inflame Iraq's Shiite majority — including those who do not support the uprising — if it targets the revered Imam Ali shrine where many of the insurgents have taken refuge.
Any assault on the shrine, one of the holiest in Shia Islam, likely would include or be led by the Iraqi forces — many of whom have only minimal training — in an effort to lessen the anger. The U.S. military said Wednesday it was holding joint exercises with Iraqi national guardsmen in preparation for the planned assault against Muqtada al-Sadr's militia.
"Iraqi and U.S. forces are making final preparations as we get ready to finish this fight that the Muqtada militia started," said Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The military said Wednesday it was taking extra time to prepare for the offensive, though it had never given a timeframe for the attack.
In response to the fighting, thousands of protesters took to the streets in the southern city of Nasiriyah, condemning what they called a U.S. attack on holy sites and chanting slogans against interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
The demonstrators also pelted the local offices of Allawi's National Accord Party with stones and one broke in and set it on fire.
Al-Sadr loyalists in the southern city of Basra threatened to blow up crucial oil pipelines and port infrastructure there if the coalition forces launched a major attack in Najaf. A similar threat Monday caused oil officials to briefly stop pumping from the southern oil wells.
In other violence, a roadside bomb exploded near a market in Khan Bani Saad, northeast of Baghdad, on Wednesday, killing at least six Iraqis and wounding nine others, a hospital official said.
"The place was crowded, but there were neither police or American patrols during the time of the explosion, and we are investigating this issue," said Baqouba police Col. Adnan Hussein.
In the volatile city of Fallujah, U.S. jet fighters bombed several houses Wednesday evening, killing four people and injuring four others, hospital officials said. The U.S. military had no immediate comment, but U.S. forces have often bombed buildings in Fallujah suspected of housing Sunni militants.
Al-Sadr's fighters have been battling coalition forces since Thursday in a number of Shiite strongholds across Iraq in a resurgence of a spring uprising that had been dormant for two months following a series of shaky truces.
"I hope that you keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred," al-Sadr said in a statement Wednesday. "I thank the dear fighters all over Iraq for what they have done to set back injustice."
In Najaf on Wednesday, Iraqi police manned checkpoints that cut the city in two as small clashes continued in the vast cemetery, where insurgents attacked Marine patrols with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. Insurgents also set up mortar positions near the shrine and put burning tires in the streets outside the holy compound, the military said.
A massive convoy of U.S. 1st Cavalry Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles drove up to the edge of the cemetery early Wednesday and was caught in a fight almost immediately.
U.S. troops climbed onto single-story buildings and fired briefly at insurgent positions in buildings in the distance, with several Bradley's firing off 25 mm cannons.
"I think they got a reproduction facility down there. I think they're cloning," Capt. Patrick McFall said, referring to the militant's tenacity in the face of repeated assaults. As he spoke, a mortar exploded nearby, sending up plumes of black smoke.
The top health official in the city, Falah al-Mahani, said the deteriorating security situation was causing "a real catastrophe" for the health services.
"Ambulances are prevented from reaching the injured people by the clashing parties. Our staff are not able to reach their hospitals. We are paralyzed," he said, adding that the fighting injured 18 members of his staff.
On Tuesday, U.S. helicopter gunships pummeled a multistory building 400 meters (yards) from the shrine with rockets, missiles and 30 mm cannons. The military said about 20 people were killed inside the building.
By Wednesday, more militants had entered the scorched hotel to resume firing at troops.
"We keep pushing south and they just keep coming," said Capt. Patrick McFall, from the 1st Cavalry Division.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's interim vice president, called on the U.S. troops to withdraw from Najaf.
"Only Iraqi forces should stay in Najaf, these forces should be responsible for security and should save Najaf from this phenomenon of killing," al-Jaafari told Arab TV network Al-Jazeera from London on Wednesday.
Coalition forces said Allawi was intimately involved in their plans. Speaking of the timing for the planned major assault, U.S. Marine Maj. David Holahan said: "Allawi makes the final decision."
The U.S. military has estimated that hundreds of insurgents have been killed in the Najaf fighting, but the militants dispute that. Five U.S. troops have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers.
The fighting has plagued other Shiite communities across Iraq.
In Kut, 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Iraqi police fought off attacks from al-Sadr's Mahdi Army at the town's central police station and other government offices. The fighting killed four people and wounded 20 others said Dr. Falah al-Bermany, a local health official.
"We gave orders to our forces to shoot anyone who gets near government buildings," said Gov. Mohammed Ridha.
Overnight clashes between insurgents and British forces in the southern city of Amarah killed 20 people and injured 50, according to Adnan Abdul Rahman, Interior Ministry spokesman. Local officials said many of the killed and injured were militants.
British tanks were seen patrolling the major roads, while Mahdi Army militants walked through the alleys, witnesses said.
Maj. Ian Clooney, a British spokesman, said British forces attacked positions Tuesday night that militants were using to ambush coalition patrols and bases. The British suffered two minor casualties.
In other developments:
_ Gunmen killed Ali al-Khalisi, the head of the Diyala province office of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's largest Shiite group, said Haitham al-Husseini, a SCIRI spokesman. Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Tawhid and Jihad group claimed responsibility for the killing.
_ Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry confirmed that a body found in the Tigris River last month was that of Ivaylo Kepov, a Bulgarian truck driver taken hostage. An earlier body pulled from the Tigris had been identified as Georgi Lazov, another Bulgarian trucker taken hostage with Kepov.