NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 7 - Marine commanders battling Moktada al-Sadr's rebel militiamen in this Shiite holy city said Saturday that the fighting had cleared the rebels from the ancient cemetery in the heart of the old city, but that more fighting lay ahead in the streets and alleyways nearby as an American-led offensive moved to the end of its third day.
American commanders, who said they were acting under orders from the new Iraqi government, gave little sign that they intended to heed appeals for a cease-fire from clerics and others claiming to represent Mr. Sadr. But their forces pulled back from the cemetery's edges overnight to take up more secure positions, and the city streets were mostly quiet.
The marines described engaging in hand-to-hand fighting in the vast cemetery, which lies adjacent to the ancient Imam Ali mosque, a golden-domed shrine that is one of the holiest in Shiite Islam. The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which returned to Iraq recently after taking part in the American-led invasion last year, had endured the fiercest battle of all its engagements in Iraq, the commanders said.
"The engagements in the cemetery were done on foot, encountering numerous fighters at a range when you can smell a man, and it's hand-to-hand combat," said Col. John Mayer, who leads the battalion that took part in the fighting. He spoke at a forward Marine base on the outskirts of Najaf, about three miles from the fighting, as fresh Marine units prepared at dusk for nighttime deployment into the city.
American accounts of the fighting on Saturday said that there had been only sporadic exchanges of rifle, rocket and mortar fire after the intense battles of the previous 48 hours, in which the marines and an allied force of Iraqi police officers and national guardsmen claimed to have killed more than 300 fighters wearing the black outfits of the Mahdi Army, the militia force loyal to Mr. Sadr. Spokesmen for the militia have countered the claims, saying only 40 of their fighters had been killed.
The United States command said American losses in the fighting up to noon on Saturday amounted to two marines and one soldier killed, and about 20 American servicemen seriously wounded.
Reports from Najaf told of a city now largely deserted, especially in the area of the old city where the fighting has been concentrated. Shops and other businesses remained closed. The few people who ventured out on foot could be seen clearing rubble, seemingly oblivious to the rattle of nearby machine-gun fire. All power, water and telephone lines were cut.
An Army battalion is expect to join the marines in Najaf, though Marine officers said the United States is hoping that Iraqi national guard and police will take the lead, especially at the fringe of the cemetery near the shrine; in that area the Americans are vulnerable to attack and feel constrained to wage an offensive.
In Baghdad, representatives of Mr. Sadr met Saturday with a United Nations official, Jamal Benomar, who offered himself as an intermediary, along with a group of Iraqis from a range of political and religious groups. Mr. Benomar said Mr. Sadr's envoys appeared to be reaching for a cease-fire. "In a nutshell, they are keen to meet with the government and come to a settlement," Mr. Benomar said.
But there was little sign a cease-fire would be accepted by the Iraqi government and American commanders. Instead, the indications at nightfall were that the American and Iraqi units intended to press the battle, in the hope of breaking the back of Mr. Sadr's force in Najaf.
The Iraqi police commander in the city, Gen. Galib Hadi al-Jazaery, told reporters at the Marine base that Iraqi police officers and guardsmen had surrounded and attacked a house that Mr. Sadr has used as a headquarters in recent months. But the force did not find the cleric. "We want to rid the city of this devil," General Jazaery said.
Lt. Col. Aqil Khalil of the Iraqi national guard said the attack on the house was botched, and that the guard and police did not work effectively together. The Iraqis are struggling to prove themselves in battle.
Much in the immediate future of Iraq depends on the Najaf fighting, and on lower-intensity skirmishes in the last 72 hours in other urban areas across central and southern Iraq, including the sprawling slum of Sadr City, on Baghdad's outskirts, and the southern city of Nasiriya. The central question is whether the decision to confront the militiamen, and to do so in a place of the highest religious sensitivities, Najaf, will win the support of Iraq's Shiite majority, or provoke a potentially crippling backlash against the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
On Saturday, after remaining silent during the first 48 hours of fighting, Dr. Allawi gave a news conference in Baghdad in which he appeared intent on reinforcing his appeal to Iraqis as the strongman many have said they wanted during the 15 months of lawlessness and insurgency that has followed the American invasion last year.
He turned aside appeals for a cease-fire, saying prisoners taken during the fighting included "more than 1,000 criminals," at least 400 of whom had been released from prisons under an amnesty declared by Saddam Hussein six months before he was toppled from power.
"What has occurred in Najaf is pitiful," the prime minister said. Referring to the militiamen, he continued: "These attacks have aimed at destabilizing the government. These people are trying to deprive our people of their freedom and progress. Our country has gone through too many wars, and too much hardship, and I'm confident our people will choose the path toward peace and prosperity."
Dr. Allawi described the fighting as an attempt to undermine the new government's efforts to improve security, strengthen the economy and prepare for parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of January. A fully elected government is planned by January 2006. At one point, he invited Mr. Sadr to abandon reliance on his militia and to run in the January elections, an idea that Mr. Sadr had already rejected.
Dr. Allawi, a Shiite who trained as a physician and joined Mr. Hussein's ruling Baath Party as a student but defected to the exiled opposition 20 years ago, showed some of the political deftness he will need if he is to emerge from the tangled machinations of Shiite politics as a contender for power in the elections.
He suggested at the news conference that the militiamen fighting in Najaf, whom the Americans have said have mostly worn the black outfits of Mr. Sadr's militia, might not be Sadr loyalists at all, but "people using his name." He said he had been receiving "positive messages from Moktada al-Sadr." But he gave no details, and did not clarify whether he was referring to private communications from the rebel cleric or to discussions in Baghdad earlier on Saturday between representatives of Mr. Sadr and Mr. Benomar.
Dr. Allawi's suggestion that Mr. Sadr might not be responsible for the men battling in Najaf appeared intended to provide an alternative to an all-out showdown with potentially grim implications for both men.
If the Najaf fighting has shown Dr. Allawi at his most combative, he used his news conference to brandish a carrot along with the stick. He announced that he had signed a decree offering a 30-day amnesty period for people involved with the insurgency that has paralyzed wide areas of the country. The terms of the amnesty cover only relatively minor actions - among them, possessing illegal arms and explosives, failing to disclose information about terrorist groups, and otherwise helping with attacks. But under American pressure, the amnesty offer would not include anybody who has engaged in killing United States troops.
Throughout the clashes, American military spokesmen have stressed the point that fighting with the Sadr militia has been undertaken under the political authority of the new government. They have said that the Najaf battle was triggered at early light on Thursday when the city's Iraqi governor appealed for the marines to send a quick reaction force from a tent camp 30 miles east of the city to support Iraqi policemen and national guardsmen defending a police station in Najaf's old city from waves of attack by the militiamen.
The United Nations offered to try to resolve the fighting "even at this late hour, to work out a cease-fire and peaceful solution.'' NATO sent a handful of officers, its first batch, to train government forces in Iraq.
At dusk on Saturday, Brig. Gen. Erwin F. Lessel III of the Air Force, the deputy operations director for the American command in Baghdad, said Najaf had been mainly quiet for much of the day, but that there had been exchanges of rifle and rocket fire around the cemetery. General Lessel said there was no immediate expectation of a cease-fire. "We're going to continue operations," he said. "We are not negotiating at this point." But he added that the political decisions were for Dr. Allawi, not for American commanders. "The Iraqi government has the lead," he said. "We are there in a supporting role, and we will support the government in its decisions. It was their resolve, their commitment to take this course of action, and there's no indication that they're going to stop."
United States military spokesmen have stressed that it was the Sadr fighters who turned the mosque and its vicinity into a battleground. They have said that Mr. Sadr's fighters have fired rifles, mortars and rockets from within the mosque or its roofs, as well as the cemetery, and that the marines have fired back only when fired upon.
The 11th Marine Expeditionary Force, the American unit leading the fighting, issued a statement on Saturday saying that the militiamen had stored "large weapons caches" in the cemetery and had launched numerous attacks from the site, violating a cease-fire agreement reached with American forces in May.
The statement added: "While the international laws of armed conflict normally identify sites like this as protected places, such status is forfeited if the site is used for military purposes. The actions of the Moktada militia make the cemetery a legitimate military objective, which was only assaulted due to necessity and self-defense. During the fighting, the marines made every effort to minimize collateral damage and preserve the cemetery."
Alex Berenson reported from Najaf for this article, and John F. Burns from Baghdad. Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Baghdad.