NAJAF, Iraq — Rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr's grip on Imam Ali Mosque appeared less certain late Friday after a chaotic day in which some of his fighters were captured attempting to flee this holy city and his representatives vowed to remove weapons from the shrine.
Earlier in the day, Iraqi government officials had reported -- erroneously -- that Sadr's forces had been routed from the mosque. But Friday evening, the militia still maintained control of the shrine, although a Sadr spokesman said negotiations were underway to turn it over to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric.
Aides to Sistani, who is in London recovering from a heart procedure, said they would accept Sadr's offer on condition that all of his men left the mosque, its doors were locked and its contents inventoried.
Early Friday evening, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his defense minister prepared to fly to Najaf. But the trip was abruptly called off when officials learned that reports of Iraqi police taking over the mosque were false.
Najaf Gov. Adnan Zurfi said in an interview that the reports, circulated by the Interior Ministry, had been premature. He said police had planned to raid and recapture the mosque Friday but were unable to get final approval from government officials in Baghdad.
Allawi appeared to take a more conciliatory approach Friday than he had the previous day, saying in a BBC radio interview that he did not intend to raid the shrine. Thursday night, Allawi had issued what he termed a "final call" to Sadr and his Al Mahdi militia to leave the mosque and lay down their weapons.
U.S. military and other officials took Friday's developments as a sign that Sadr might be ready to end the 2-week-old standoff.
"It's a signal that they're breaking, that there's a fissure," a military official in Najaf said.
"My sense is there's a splintering" within the Sadr camp, a Western diplomat in Baghdad said earlier, citing reports of possible infighting between hard-line and more dovish advisors to the cleric.
Throughout the crisis, Sadr has sent mixed signals, declaring through his many aides a desire for negotiations and peace, while also denouncing the government and vowing to fight to the death.
He also has said that he cannot disband the militia because it is a voluntary group that does not belong to him.
Iraqi police said Friday that they had captured 50 militiamen attempting to leave Najaf's Old City, the site of the gold-domed shrine.
Sadr's latest offer to quit Imam Ali Mosque -- one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam -- followed heavy U.S. bombing of militia strongholds around the Old City.
The Iraqi Health Ministry said 77 people were killed and 70 injured in the 24-hour period through early Friday evening. It was not known how many of the dead were civilians and how many were combatants.
For much of Friday, it also was unclear who controlled the shrine, which has become the focal point of the violent confrontation that broke out Aug. 5. A jumble of conflicting reports piled up, sowing confusion among Iraqi and U.S. officials.
At 5:30 p.m. in Baghdad, the Interior Ministry announced that the mosque was "completely under the control of the Iraqi police," without a single shot having been fired. Yet minutes later, Najaf's police chief told reporters that he was waiting for the Defense Ministry to issue a plan to invade the shrine.
A Sadr spokesman inside the mosque denied that any police were there but said militia fighters were preparing to pull out.
"We are emptying the shrine and getting started on the next step, which is handing over the keys to the shrine to Ayatollah Ali Sistani's office," Ahmed Shibani said.
"The situation is not terribly clear now," Mouwafak Rabii, Allawi's national security advisor, told CNN.
Even U.S. military leaders, whose more than 5,000 troops in the area have been conducting surveillance and maintaining a loose cordon around the Old City, were unsure of who was in charge of the shrine, which is less than two miles from one of the military's bases.
Marine and Army officers, who have spent the last several days with Iraqi officials discussing possible joint operations to evict Sadr's fighters, sat stunned as they listened to televised reports that Iraqi police had independently seized the mosque. Intelligence officers scrambled to verify the information.
U.S. and Iraqi forces had refrained from attacking the shrine partly out of concern about damaging the revered site and inflaming Shiite Muslims worldwide.
"We really don't know what the situation is," said Army Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.
As a precaution, Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, head of the multinational forces in Iraq, ordered an "operational pause," temporarily halting offensive maneuvers. Marine units that had been dispatched to set up checkpoints to catch any fleeing militiamen were recalled.
By early evening, fighting between U.S. troops and militiamen had resumed.