KUFA, Iraq -- A mortar attack on the main mosque in Kufa this morning killed at least 25 people and wounded scores, witnesses and hospital officials said.
The mosque was crowded with men at the time, and ambulances raced to the scene to take the wounded to a nearby hospital. Dead bodies lay around the mosque compound.
Hussam al-Husseini, an aide to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said one mortar shell hit the mosque itself and two others hit near the mosque gates.
It was unclear who fired the mortars. US forces have battled Shi'ite insurgents loyal to al-Sadr in neighboring Najaf for three weeks.
Al-Sadr had regularly used the mosque to deliver sermons at Friday prayers. The attack followed three mortar rounds yesterday, apparently targeting a police checkpoint, that hit a civilian area in Kufa, killing two civilians, including an 8-year-old boy, witnesses and hospital officials said.
Also yesterday, unidentified gunmen shooting from an Iraqi Guard base killed two people and wounded five others who were taking part in what appeared to be a peaceful protest in Kufa supporting al-Sadr, according to TV footage and hospital officials.
In Najaf's Old City, heavy fighting continued for a fifth straight day today. The site, home of the revered Imam Ali shrine, has been the center of many of the clashes between militants loyal to al-Sadr and a combined Iraqi-US force. Late yesterday, US warplanes bombed the area and fierce skirmishes broke out. Huge blasts sporadically shook the city, and smoke rose into the night sky. At dawn today, blasts and gunfire continued to ring through the Old City.
Hoping to end the weeks of fighting in Najaf, Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric unexpectedly returned home from Britain yesterday with a new peace initiative and a call for Iraqis across the country to march on the holy city.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini Al-Sistani, who wields enormous influence among Shi'ite Iraqis, had previously declined to get involved in resolving the violent conflicts roiling the nation, and it was unclear why he suddenly changed his mind. But his dramatic return from a nearly three-week trip to London, where he had gone for medical treatment, spread optimism that the crisis could be resolved peacefully.
Sistani, 75, had left for London on Aug. 6, one day after the clashes erupted. He underwent an angioplasty to unblock a coronary artery Aug. 13 and was recuperating when his office suddenly announced yesterday morning he was returning to the country ''to stop the bloodshed."
In the southern Iraqi city of Basra yesterday, Sistani arrived and met with a delegation of government ministers and mediators. He told them military operations in Najaf must end and the government must not raid the Imam Ali shrine, according to an Associated Press reporter inside the meeting.
''I hope that peace prevails in Iraq. I hope that peace prevails in Najaf," he said.
Late yesterday, Sistani proposed a new peace initiative, calling for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf and leave security to the police and for the Iraqi government to compensate those harmed by the fighting here, according to Sistani aide Hamed al-Khafaf.
In an effort to show support for peace, Sistani ''will lead thousands of followers on a march to holy Najaf," Khafaf told the Arab satellite television station Al-Arabiya. ''We call upon all devout Iraqis who follow him" to prepare to head to Najaf.
Basra's governor, Hassan al-Rashid, told reporters the peace march will take place today.
''The masses will gather at the outskirts of Najaf and they will not enter the city until all armed men, except the Iraqi policemen, withdraw from the city," he said.
Early today, witnesses said Sistani left Basra for Najaf in a 30-vehicle convoy of SUVs. It was not clear whether Sistani would stop at other cities along the 220-mile route.
The violence over the past three weeks here has killed scores of civilians, destroyed shops and homes in Najaf's Old City, and caused slight damage to the Imam Ali shrine, where Sadr's followers have taken refuge.
Iraqi police sealed off Najaf's Old City, preventing cars from entering, and the police chief, Major General Ghalib al-Jazaari, said Sadr's Mahdi Army militia was on its last legs.
''The Mahdi Army is finished," he said. ''Its hours are numbered."
Witnesses in the Old City said the militants were still fighting in the streets, though the relentless American attacks appeared to be taking their toll.
Police also arrested several Sadr aides with valuables from the shrine in their possession, Jazaari said. One of Sadr's top lieutenants, Sheik Ali Smeisim, was among those arrested, police officials said on condition of anonymity.
Sadr aides issued their own call for a march on Najaf.
Appeals issued from mosque loudspeakers across Iraq urging Iraqis to heed Sistani's call. In the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, many left for Najaf in cars and buses.
Witnesses in other cities reported similar delegations leaving.
Jazaari cautioned Iraqis not to come here because ''they could be putting their lives in danger."
In another development yesterday, a militant group said it had kidnapped the brother-in-law of Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan and demanded that he end all military operations in Najaf, according to a video obtained by Al-Jazeera television.
The militants, who called themselves the ''Divine Wrath Brigades," said they kidnapped Major General Salah Hassan Lami, Shaalan's brother-in-law and the director of military affairs at the Defense Ministry, according to Al-Jazeera.
A second man was also kidnapped, though his identity was unclear. It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the videotape.