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Al-Sadr hands over shrine


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Al-Sadr 'hands over keys to Najaf shrine'

Friday 20 August 2004, 16:49 Makka Time, 13:49 GMT

As a tense calm returns to Najaf, aides of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have reportedly handed control of the Imam Ali mosque to Iraq's senior Shia religious authorities.

An al-Sadr's aide told Aljazeera on Friday that control of the religious site had been given to representatives of the country's most senior Shia figure.

"The keys of the Imam Ali shrine have been handed over to representatives of the Shia highest religious authority, Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani," said Ahmad al-Shaibani.

"This step means the administration of the Imam Ali mausoleum has been submitted to the religious authority in the city," he added.

The apparent move to transfer of control of the revered site comes after a day of warnings by the Iraqi interim government that al-Sadr's militia should withdraw from Najaf and disband, or face a decisive military assault.

At least 77 Iraqis have been killed and 70 wounded in fighting in Najaf over the past 24 hours, Iraq's Health Ministry said on Friday. Six of those killed in Najaf were police killed in a mortar attack.

The ministry added that 13 Iraqis have been killed and 107 others wounded in Baghdad, where US troops have raided the mainly Shia al-Sadr City district.

Najaf experienced an uneasy quiet on Friday - punctuated by occasional gunfire - hours after an overnight US bombing raid shook the historic area of the city.

On Thursday, the Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued a "final call" to al-Sadr and his fighters to leave the shrine - though he did not mention a deadline.

The US-backed premier faces a dilemma in trying to oust the al-Mahdi Army militia from their entrenched position within the Imam Ali mosque complex.

The site is widely revered by Muslims, especially Shia believers. An assault - particularly one involving US forces - risks igniting a dangerous backlash.

US officials have said their troops are unlikely take part in an attack on the mosque site - although US marines, tanks and aircraft have been clearly active around the area.

Television broadcasts on Friday showed two of the mosque's minarets were marked by shrapnel, while a clock in one of the towers had been damaged.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr's supporters holed up in the mosque site may have found a way out without having to surrender to Allawi and US-led occupation forces.

Al-Shaibani told Aljazeera al-Sadr's movement "has not closed the door towards negotiations with the Iraqi government to end fighting in Najaf but it is not ready to surrender."

Asked earlier if fighters of the al-Mahdi Army would leave the shrine if a deal was struck, al-Shaibani said: "Any fighter who wants to enter it will have to leave his weapon outside."

The Shia militiamen have been running the Imam Ali shrine since an earlier uprising in April.

Meanwhile, occasional clashes have continued. Our correspondent has reported that an intense artillery barrage hit the cemetery, the old sectors of the city and buildings around the Imam Ali mosque in the early hours of Friday.



Al-Sadr supporters leave Najaf mosque

Iraqi police enter mosque without fight

Friday, August 20, 2004 Posted: 9:55 AM EDT (1355 GMT)

NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi police seized control of the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf on Friday after the fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew, the Iraqi Interior Ministry said.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry said police peacefully entered the mosque Friday afternoon.

U.S. and Iraqi forces had surrounded the outskirts of the mosque compound Friday as part of offensive operations aimed at putting pressure on the fighters, who were holed up in the mosque complex.

A spokesman for al-Sadr said al-Sadr ordered the mosque to be handed over to "the highest religious authority."

Iraqi Ministry of Health officials Friday said 77 Iraqis were killed and 70 were wounded in heavy fighting in Najaf overnight.

The dead included six Iraqi police officers.

Recent fighting in the city center has damaged the mosque and two of its minarets, according to a CNN producer who visited the compound.

Al-Sadr had refused to negotiate on the latest Iraqi government ultimatum because, an aide said, he and his forces want to deal with the Iraqi National Conference delegation and not the interim government.

Thousands of militants loyal to al-Sadr were inside the mosque, and Iraqi officials had threatened to "liberate" the mosque in a military offensive if the forces don't leave.

"We are very determined that blood loss should be minimized," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said.

CNN producer Kianne Sadeq, who went inside the mosque compound Thursday with a group of journalists, reported persistent sounds of mortars, gunfire and explosions. She said there was also a great deal of sniper fire.

The journalists were greeted by the Mehdi Army with cheers and chants of "We will not stand down!" Fighters flashed pictures of al-Sadr and many danced. Also inside the compound were women and children, most of whom appeared in a festive mood like the rest of the al-Sadr followers. (On the Scene: Inside the mosque)

Homes and businesses around the compound were heavily damaged. The streets were empty, and Sadeq described the area as a virtual ghost town.

"Everything outside of the mosque seems to be totaled," Sadeq said.

The Iraqi Ministry of Health also said Friday that fighting in Baghdad overnight had killed 13 Iraqis and wounded 107, with most of the casualties happening in Sadr City, the Iraqi Ministry of Health said. The area is a Shiite neighborhood and a focus for the activities of al-Sadr supporters.

Airstrikes in Falluja

U.S. airstrikes on antiaircraft positions in Falluja on Friday killed at least five Iraqis, according to a hospital official in the city.

Lt. Col. Thomas Johnson with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said the airstrikes targeted sites that were firing on U.S. aircraft.

The first strike happened around 1 a.m. (5 p.m. Thursday ET) in the western district of al-Sina'i, killing two people and wounding four others.

The second took place about 10 hours later and resulted in large secondary explosions, Johnson said, suggesting a weapons depot was nearby the anti-aircraft position.

A Falluja hospital official told a different story, saying the airstrike hit a milk factory, killing three Iraqis and wounding two others.

Earlier, a U.S. C-130 gunship fired on insurgents in eastern Falluja, after insurgents fired small arms and anti-aircraft weapons at the gunship overnight Thursday.

They were also seen firing mortars at a U.S. military base there. Minutes later, the C-130 dropped bombs in the industrial and military neighborhoods, a CNN stringer reported.

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