Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Najaf talks falter, violence continues

AP , NAJAF, IRAQ

Iraqi's inspects a building damaged during clashes between Moqtada al-Sadr loyalists and US and Iraqi forces in Kufa, 20km from Najaf, Saturday.

PHOTO: EPA

Sporadic gunfire, explosions and a US bombing raid shook the city of Najaf yesterday as militants retained control of a revered shrine, raising fears that a plan to end the crisis could collapse amid bickering between Shiite leaders.

Early yesterday, US warplanes bombed Najaf's Old City, the scene of much of the more than two weeks of fighting, and the sounds of shelling could be heard in the streets, witnesses said. The US military could not confirm the bombing, but said operations in Najaf were ongoing.

US forces also appeared yesterday to have sealed off the Old City, restoring a cordon that had been loosened in recent days.

Three mortar shells exploded near a police station that had been the frequent target of attacks by militants loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. No one was injured, witnesses said.

Fighting in the nearby city of Kufa on Saturday killed 40 of the militants, according to a source in the Interior Ministry. However, Mahmoud al-Soudani, head of al-Sadr's office in west Baghdad, called the claim "government propaganda" and said only one militant had died in Kufa Saturday.

The two sides clashed sporadically in Najaf throughout yesterday morning. At least three people were killed and 18 injured during the fighting overnight, said Tawfiq Mohammed of Najaf General Hospital.

An unofficial mediator and distant relative of the militant leader pleaded with al-Sadr to disarm his militants, pull them out of the shrine and disband his militia immediately.

"We are in a race with time," Hussein al-Sadr said late Saturday.

In separate violence north of Baghdad yesterday, a car bomb exploded in the town of Khalis, killing two people and injuring 14 others, including a deputy provincial governor, Bassam al-Khadran, who was lightly wounded, Iraqi officials said.

A suicide bomber detonated the car, laden with explosives, as al-Khadran was traveling to work in a small convoy, said General Waleed al-Azawi, chief of police for Diyala province. Both fatalities and seven of the injured were al-Khadran's bodyguards, he said. One civilian was also wounded.

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