BAGHDAD -- Iraq has issued arrest warrants for Ahmed Chalabi, a former Governing Council member, on counterfeiting charges, and for his nephew Salem Chalabi, head of the tribunal trying Saddam Hussein, on murder charges, Iraq's chief investigating judge said yesterday.
The warrant is the latest strike against Ahmed Chalabi in removing him from the centers of power. A longtime Iraqi exile opposition leader, he had been a favorite of many in the Pentagon but fell out with the Americans in the weeks before the handover of Iraqi sovereignty in June.
Both denied the charges, calling them part of a political conspiracy against the Chalabi family.
Salem Chalabi, named as a suspect in the June murder of Haitham Fadhil, director general of the finance ministry, called the accusations "ridiculous." Ahmed Chalabi said the charges were "outrageous" and "manufactured lies."
Also yesterday, Iyad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, protected by about 100 guards, visited the war-shattered city of Najaf, calling on Shi'ite militants to lay down their weapons after days of fierce clashes with US forces.
Gunfire and explosions echoed through Najaf's streets, marking the fourth day of clashes in the holy city and other Shi'ite areas of Iraq. Hours later, US helicopter gunships pounded the massive Najaf cemetery, a militant hide-out and the scene of much of the fighting, witnesses said.
A deadline for militants to withdraw from Najaf, the center of the worst violence, expired Saturday, but masked gunmen still patrolled the streets of the old city yesterday. The Mahdi Army militia of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr also controlled the Imam Ali shrine compound, one of the most revered sites in Shi'ite Islam.
At least two Iraqi national guardsmen were killed and 15 people injured during yesterday's fighting, hospital officials said.
Allawi firmly rejected compromise with the militants during his brief visit in the morning. Protecting him were US forces, foreign security contractors, Iraqi national guardsmen, and Iraqi police.
"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.
Allawi's delegation did not meet with Sadr, and the cleric's aides rejected his demands.
Scattered attacks across the country yesterday killed at least 19 Iraqis and wounded dozens of others, including four US soldiers. A US soldier also died Saturday in a "non-combat related incident," the military said yesterday.
As the violence continued, the government reinstated the death penalty in its latest effort to curb the 15-month-old insurgency -- marked by car bombings, sabotage, gun battles, and kidnappings -- that has 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," said Bakhtiar Amin, human rights minister.
In Washington, the Bush administration had no comment about the charges against the Chalabis. "This is a matter for the Iraqi authorities to resolve, and they are taking steps to do so," White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis said.
Ahmed Chalabi was left out of the new interim government, which took power June 28, but has worked to reposition himself as a Shi'ite populist. At the helm of the war crimes tribunal for Hussein, the Ivy League-educated Salem Chalabi remains a central figure in Iraq.
"They should be arrested and then questioned, and . . . if there is enough evidence, they will be sent to trial," Judge Zuhair al-Maliky said.
The warrants, issued Saturday, accused Ahmed Chalabi of counterfeiting old Iraqi dinars, which were removed from circulation after Hussein's regime was ousted last year. Ahmed Chalabi seemed to have been mixing the counterfeit money with other old money and changing it into new dinars in the street, Maliky said.
Iraqi police backed by US troops found counterfeit money with old dinars during a raid on Chalabi's house in Baghdad in May.
Ahmed Chalabi is also wanted in Jordan for a 1991 conviction in absentia for fraud in a banking scandal. He was sentenced to 22 years in jail but has denied all allegations.
The Chalabis were out of the country yesterday but promised to return to Iraq to face the allegations.
"I'm now mobilized on all fronts to rebuff all these charges," Ahmed Chalabi told CNN from Tehran, where he was attending an economic conference. "Nobody's above the law, and I submit to the law in Iraq . . . despite my serious and grave reservations about this court."
His nephew expressed similar confidence about beating the charges. "I don't think . . . that I had anything to do with the charges, so I'm not actually worried about it," Salem Chalabi told CNN from London. "It's a ridiculous charge . . . there's no proof."
If convicted, Salem Chalabi could face the death penalty, Maliky said. Trial judges would determine any sentence for his uncle.
Ahmed Chalabi's star has steadily declined in Washington; he was once considered the most likely choice for Iraqi president after Hussein's fall, but he was not popular in Iraq.
Chalabi insisted his falling-out with the United States has boosted his status among Iraqis.
Also yesterday, militants said they had abducted Faridoun Jihani, the Iranian consul to Karbala, Iraq. The kidnappers, who called themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq, warned Iran not to interfere in Iraq's affairs but did not threaten Jihani or make demands, according to Al-Arabiya television.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Jihani disappeared Wednesday night on the road from Baghdad to Karbala.