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Militia still in Najaf mosque, cracks emerge in handover plan
Moqtada Al Sadr's militiamen were still holding their Najaf mosque stronghold on Saturday as cracks emerged in a plan to hand over control of the shrine to the Shiite religious leadership.
Supporters of the fiery radical leader remained camped out in the Imam Ali mosque, one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, as armed fighters prowled the streets of the Old City.
Despite relative calm and a heavily reduced military presence, US tanks were still parked within shooting distance of the shrine.
Sporadic gunshots and mortar fire echoed throughout the city.
The force of morning shelling from the cemetery hurled shrapnel into the courtyard of the shrine without causing damage, an AFP correspondent said.
Four mortars crashed into the office of Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, the second most senior cleric in Najaf, on Friday evening, but no one was killed or wounded, said a statement from his office.
But 17 days after the fighting broke out, it remained unclear when or if the militia would leave, as an agreement with top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani appeared to fray.
"The keys have not yet been delivered to Sistani's office, which has set conditions for accepting them," Sadr aide Ali Smeisim told AFP, after a spokesman for the ayatollah earlier said they had already been handed over.
Smeisim said Sistani's office was insisting that the compound be vacated, all its doors locked and the keys delivered in a stamped envelope.
"A delegation from the ayatollah's office will come and draw up an inventory of all the items of value in the mausoleum to ensure that nothing has been damaged before the keys are returned," he said.
The aide refused to say when such a visit might take place.
A doctor at the shrine's clinic, who gave his name only as Qusay, said it would take at least three days to move all their medicines to new premises.
Smeisim said the militia had been given the keys by a representative of the the Shiite religious leadership five months ago, raising questions about the relationship between them, which was understood to be strained.
In Najaf's twin city of Kufa, one person was killed and 12 wounded, including three children, during overnight clashes between US forces and the Mehdi Army, medics said.
Militiamen charged that US troops had attempted to to storm the Maitham al-Tamar mosque, resulting in three hours of clashes.
An AFP correspondent saw a huge hole in the outer wall of the mosque compound.
Part of a court building opposite was blackened and gutted by fire, with blood smeared on the windows.
As tensions eased in Najaf, life also began to return to normal in the militia's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, where residents awoke to a much reduced US military presence after days of heavy fighting.
An AFP photographer saw no Mehdi Army fighters in the impoverished Shiite neighbourhood, as stores reopened and residents again dared to venture outdoors.
"We woke up this morning to find no Americans in the city. Perhaps some kind of agreement was reached between the clerics and Americans, because the militia aren't here either," said shopkeeper Sajjad Abdullah, 49.
A US military spokesman confirmed that the troop presence had been scaled down as of Friday, but was unable to confirm whether any deal had been struck.
In southern Baghdad, a US soldier was killed and two others wounded, when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into their vehicle, the military said.
A Polish soldier was also killed and six others wounded in a car bombing near Hilla, south of the capital, a spokesman told the PAP news agency.
One Iraqi civilian was killed and five wounded in an ensuing shoot out.
Elsewhere, a senior policeman was shot dead in Ramadi, while four Iraqis were killed and 13 wounded in a string of attacks around the country, police and medics said.
Meanwhile, the Nepalese government said it was checking labour records for information on 12 of its citizens reportedly abducted in Iraq.
Islamist websites posted a statement from a militant group on Friday saying that Islamic fighters had taken captive 12 "infidels" who were "affiliated with a Nepalese company."
Confusion reigns in strife-torn Najaf
There is confusion about events in the Iraqis city of Najaf.
There had been reports that insurgents loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtadr al-Sadr had offered to leave the Imam Ali Shrine they have been occupying and hand over the keys to the country's spiritual authorities.
But correspondents in Najaf say the insurgents are still in control of the mosque itself.
A top aide to radical Sadr says talks on the fate of the mosque were underway and he hoped for a peaceful solution involving Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric.
"I am now going to the office of Ayatollah Sistani. Arrangements are being made so that you could see peace before you," the aide, Sheikh Ahmad al-Sheibani, told reporters near the mosque.
Sheibani said on Friday that talks were underway on handing the keys to the mosque to Sistani's aides, symbolically ending the shrine's control by Sadr's Mehdi Army supporters.
Meanwhile, US led forces are keeping up patrols streets of Najaf around the mosque and sniper fire has been heard although fighting is reported to have eased.
Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, a national security adviser to the Iraqi interim Government, says he still hopes the stand-off can be resolved peacefully.
"We don't want to inflict any damage, even the most trivial damage on the shrine," he said.
"We wanted to exhaust all efforts and we will leave no stone unturned to explore all possibilities of sort of squeezing these militia to leave the shrine.
Elsewhere in Iraq, two US soldiers were killed and three injured by a roadside bomb near the city of Samarra, some 100 kilometres north of Baghdad, a spokesman for the US Army First Infantry division said on Saturday.
The spokesman said the attack took place during a military patrol. He said the condition of the three wounded soldiers was unknown.
The attack brought to 710 the number of US servicemen and women killed in action in Iraq since the US-led invasion last year.
And a senior policeman was shot dead in the restive city of Ramadi, while an Iraqi street hawker was killed and five dustmen wounded in a bomb attack meant for a US convoy, police and medics said.
Colonel Saad Samir al-Dulaimi, head of the crime fighting unit in the Sunni Muslim bastion of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, was gunned down as he left home said police Captain Ghassan Kadhim.
A doctor at Ramadi hospital confirmed his death.
Further north, in the troubled city of Baquba, a roadside bomb exploded at about the same time, killing a peddler and wounding five dustmen, said police and medical sources.
"The peddler was selling gas cylinders and the others were dustmen. As far as we know, a US convoy was the target but the bomb exploded before it arrived," said First Lieutenant Ali Hussein.