BAGHDAD, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- U.S.-backed Iraqi National Guards closed in on the Imam Ali Mosque Wednesday where rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and his armed followers have been holed up.
Witnesses said the U.S. and Iraqi forces were positioned about 150 feet from the Shiite shrine, while U.S. helicopters had been bombarding suspected hideouts of Sadr's al-Mehdi Army militia around the compound since early Wednesday morning.
The entrances to the holy mosque were all within the range of U.S. fire, the witnesses added.
A major offensive to rout out the Shiite gunmen from the mosque appeared imminent after Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem al-Shaalan served a final warning Tuesday to Sadr and his militia to evacuate Najaf and hand over its control to Iraqi forces.
"Sadr and the al-Mehdi Army have only hours to surrender or face death and capture," al-Shaalan said.
The Iraqi government wants Sadr to announce publicly and in writing that he will renounce violence, disarm his militia, and turn his supporters into a political group.
In the meantime, the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was expected to return home Wednesday, after undergoing medical treatment in England.