BAGHDAD/NAJAF, Iraq – Tens of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq where fierce battles raged yesterday between American forces and the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a government official confirmed.

Displacement and Migration Minister Pascale Isho Warda, the only Assyrian Christian in the country’s interim government, said 40,000 Christians had already left Iraq since five church bombings blamed on Islamic militants killed up to 15 people two weeks ago, Agence France-Presse reported.

The number of fleeing Christians was much higher than previously estimated, and more believers were expected to follow amid signs of growing Muslim violence in areas such as the troubled town of Najaf, although the Vatican said late yesterday it was prepared to mediate a halt to the fighting. Al-Sadr reportedly accepted a peace plan today that would disarm his militiamen in Najaf.

Journalists described a scene of clashes between between U.S. troops and the Shiite cleric’s militia men who are hold up in a Muslim shrine. An Iraqi photographer working for London-based news agency Reuters was shot in both legs yesterday during battles between Shiite Muslim militia and U.S. forces in the holy city of Najaf.

However, in a development expected to raise questions among human-rights groups, Police Chief Gen. Ghaleb al-Jazairi said earlier he was under orders from the interior minister that all journalists, local and foreign, must leave the area.

Live broadcast interrupted

Mohammad Kazem, an Iraqi correspondent for Iranian television, was detained at gunpoint by police in the middle of a live broadcast from a rooftop, AFP said.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi reiterated his insistence that the militia disarm and quit Najaf for there to be any peaceful solution to the crisis. “The government responds favorably to the demand from the national conference that the Najaf crisis be resolved peacefully,” he said in a statement.

In Baghdad, the renewed violence overshadowed a long-awaited national conference to create a functioning assembly in what was seen as Iraq’s first experiment in democracy in decades.

Mortar bombs

Mortar bombs exploded in the heavily fortified compound around the venue, shaking the building as organizers screamed at participants to get away from the windows, an AFP reporter said. After a speech given by U.N. envoy Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, dozens of delegates leapt out of their seats, shouting: “As long as there are air strikes and shelling, we can’t have a conference.”

Since this weekend at least five people were reportedly killed when U.S. forces carried out multiple bombing raids in the flashpoint city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, after coming under attack by Sunni Muslim insurgents, a doctor and the military said. The U.S.-led coalition meanwhile announced the deaths of three soldiers in 24 hours.

A U.S. soldier was killed in northern Baghdad while a Dutch soldier and a Ukrainian officer were killed in separate incidents south of the capital, AFP said. Iraqi Christians, who are mainly Assyrians, have expressed concern that violence will especially affect them as they are seen by Muslim militants as supporters of the U.S.-led coalition. While some church officials have said there are roughly 2.5 million Assyrian Christians in Iraq, most estimates spoke recently off 750,000 as an increasing number of believers are fleeing to countries such as Syria and Jordan.

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Journalist Stefan J. Bos has traveled extensively to cover wars and revolutions and received the Annual Press Award of Merit from the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for his coverage about foreign-policy affairs including Hungary’s relationship with NATO and the European Union.

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