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Crack Iraqi troops were awaiting orders to assault the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf unless Shiite cleric Moqtda al-Sadr's Mahdi militia surrendered and vacated it. The situation worsened Thursday after Sadr renounced his commitment of the day before to end two weeks of fighting with government and US forces. A senior government minister said Sadr was in his "final hours" and that all peaceful means to persuade him to abandon the fight had been exhausted.

Iran is increasingly uncomfortable at the presence of US forces on its eastern and western flanks and could decide to launch preemptive strikes against them if a threat appears imminent, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani told the Arab satellite TV news network Al Jazeera. He said the Bush administration's model of "preventive operations ... is not limited to Americans." US troops operate in Afghan-istan to Iran's east and in Iraq to the west. The US is leading international opposition to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

In a new rebuke to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his Likud movement voted to stop him from joining forces with the opposition Labor Party in a unity government. The vote, reportedly 60 percent to 40 percent, was the same as that in a nonbinding referendum among Likud members in May against Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip. The prime minister insisted the new vote also is nonbinding, but analysts saw it as a major setback, since he has courted Labor to shore up support in parliament for the pullout from Gaza.

A day after conceding that he and other senior Palestinians were guilty of "mistakes" and "unacceptable practices," Yasser Arafat angrily refused to sign legislation aimed at achieving reforms, reports said. A Palestinian Legislative Council member described a meeting between his colleagues and Arafat Thursday as "stormy" and said, "[Arafat] considered that his speech to the council yesterday was enough."

Opponents of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said a partial audit of results from Sunday's recall referendum wouldn't satisfy them and that tests of the touch-screen machines used in the voting were necessary. Opposition leaders said the machines, which were used for the first time, produced the same number of votes for Chávez in at least 500 polling places - a statistical impossibility, they said.

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