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Talks to End Najaf Shrine Standoff  Stall - 2004-08-21


There is tension in the Iraqi city of Najaf, where talks over transferring custody of a holy shrine have stalled.

A spokesman for radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr says his militia, the Mahdi Army, intends to hand over the keys to the Imam Ali Shrine to Iraq's senior Shi'ite religious leader. But he says representatives of the two clerics have not been able to reach an agreement over the conditions for the handover.

The Sadr spokesman says the Mahdi Army wants a special committee to inspect the shrine and inventory its contents to make sure none of the holy relics have been damaged or stolen.

But aides to senior Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani say it would be impossible to put together an inspection committee in the current circumstances.

The Shrine of Imam Ali is one of the holiest sites to Shi'ites around the world, and has been surrounded by fierce fighting for more than two-and-a-half weeks. At one point, thousands of Mahdi Army fighters were believed to be holed up inside the mosque and a nearby cemetery. But over the past day or two, many of the militants are believed to have left, taking their weapons with them.

Iraq's Interior Ministry claimed on Friday that Iraqi police had entered the shrine, without firing a shot and arrested hundreds of fighters. But the Mahdi Army denies that, saying it has retained control of the mosque the whole time. Journalists in the shrine say they never saw a single policeman set foot inside.

The current whereabouts of Moqtada al-Sadr are unknown. He has not been seen publicly in about a week, and his aides will say only that he is in a secure location.

Meanwhile, an Italian freelance journalist has disappeared in Najaf. Italian Embassy officials say they last heard from him on Thursday, and they fear he has been kidnapped.

Two other foreign reporters have been abducted in southern Iraq in the last week and a half.

A senior Sadr assistant says he believes a French-American journalist will be released soon. Micah Garen was kidnapped in the southern city of Nasiriyah more than a week ago. His abductors initially threatened to kill him within 48 hours, if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf. But according to the spokesman, mediators now say the kidnappers are planning to let him go, after Mr. al-Sadr appealed for his release.

The independent filmmaker had been making a documentary about Iraq's looted archaeological treasures.

A freelance British reporter was snatched in Basra on August 12, but was released the following day, after Mr. al-Sadr called on his kidnappers to free him.

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