NAJAF, Aug 24: Iraqi forces moved to within 400 metres of the Imam Ali (AS) Mosque and shrine in Najaf on Tuesday, just hours after the government warned fighters inside they would be killed if they did not surrender.

"God willing, we'll be moving in tonight," a commander of one unit said, adding that around 500 Iraqi troops had been deployed to the area around the mosque, the first time government forces have entered the battle zone.

In another southern city, Ammara, 12 Iraqis were killed, including three children, and 54 wounded in clashes between Shia militiamen and British troops. An aide to Shia leader Moqtada al Sadr said his Mehdi Army militia was ready to negotiate to end the fighting in Najaf, which has killed hundreds, driven oil prices to record highs and touched off clashes in seven other cities.

The advance was carried out by 50 Iraqi servicemen and came after US helicopters fired missiles and strafed militants dug in at a cemetery near the mosque, where most of the fighters have holed up since the uprising in the city began three weeks ago.

A US soldier guided the men in. They were shot at by Mehdi militiamen and returned fire. "We are in the last hours. This evening, Iraqi forces will reach the doors of the shrine and control it and appeal to the Mehdi Army to throw down their weapons," Defence Minister Hazim al Shalaan said at a US army base outside Najaf.

"If they do not, we will wipe them out." With fighting raging, US tanks reinforced positions along the southern flank of the mosque. Black smoke rose from the area and automatic gunfire crackled after an overnight bombardment from warplanes and artillery.

The ultimatum from the interim government is the latest in a series of threats that Iraqi forces will storm the shrine to disarm the militia, which appeared ready to talk. "We are ready to negotiate to put an end to the suffering," Sadr aide Ali Smeisim said in Najaf.

MINISTERS TARGETED: In Baghdad, guerillas tried to assassinate Iraq's environment and education ministers in separate bombings that killed five of their bodyguards and wounded more than a dozen people, officials said.

Environment Minister Mishkat Moumin said she survived a suicide car bomb attack on her convoy in Baghdad. Education Minister Sami al Mudhaffar was unhurt after a roadside bomb hit his convoy in the city.

A group linked to Al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attempt on Mishkat Moumin and said it would not miss next time, according to an Internet statement.

The attacks were the latest attempts to kill officials in the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who took power from US-led occupiers barely two months ago and faces crises on many fronts, especially in Najaf.

"Serving the Iraqi people is not a crime that deserves this," an outraged Moumin said after the blast. The attack shocked local residents. "I opened the door to leave for work and the blast knocked me over," said Ali al Tai, standing in front of his home only metres from the blast site where Moumin was targeted, blood from victims splattered on his shirt.

Last month, Iraq's justice minister survived a suicide car bomb attack on his convoy in Baghdad. The then head of the Iraqi Governing Council, Izzedin Salim, was killed in May in a similar strike. Both of those attacks were claimed by Zarqawi.

AMMARA CLASHES: According to hospital sources, the twelve were brought dead to the Al Ammara hospital and 54 patients admitted with injuries, said the centre's director.

Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army fighters clashed with British troops for about two hours after they opened fire on a British base. Doctor Mustafa Ali said three mortar rounds landed on the Al Jadida residential district. It was not immediately clear which side fired the deadly rounds.

The military said British bases in Ammara had come under sporadic small arms and mortar attacks, but had no information about any "sustained activity". A spokesman said there had only been "low-level interference for roughly the last 24 hours. There's been no large incident that we are aware of". -Reuters/AFP

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