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Southern Iraq Marked by Second Day of Heavy Fighting - 2004-05-14

There's been another day of heavy Friday in southern Iraq between American troops and gunmen loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr near some of the holiest Shi'ite shrines. Correspondent Nick Simeone has the latest from Washington.

More street fighting in Karbala between U.S. Army troops and Sadr militiamen armed with rockets and mortars, much of it taking place near the city's holy shrines.

In Baghdad, American General Mark Kimmitt denounced Islamic gunmen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, accusing them of attempting to hide within cemeteries and Shi'ite holy sites, knowing the outrage any direct U.S. attack on them would set off in the Muslim world.

?What gives you the right to violate the Shia religion?? he asked. ?What gives you the right to use this to protect yourself and your troops??

In Najaf, supporters of the wanted cleric showed reporters damage to the dome of the Imam Ali mosque, saying it was caused by American shellfire, a claim doubted by General Kimmitt.

?If there is a hole in that shrine, go ask Moqtada [al-Sadr].? he said.

Amid the on-going violence, United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is working against a June 30 deadline to help select an interim Iraqi government that will take limited power once top American administrator Paul Bremer leaves the country the next day. Although American troops will remain, Mr. Bremer told Iraqi officials Friday that too, could change if Iraq's new sovereign leaders want them out.

?We don't stay in countries where we're not wanted. If the interim government were to ask us to leave, we would leave,? he said. ?I don't think that will happen.?

At a meeting of G8 foreign ministers in Washington, other members of the coalition including Italy and Britain expressed the same view. Jack Straw is Britain's foreign secretary. ?Were they to ask us to leave, we would leave,? he said.

At a time when Washington is encouraging more countries to contribute troops, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier unequivocally ruled out any French military presence in Iraq. ?I can say and will say again here there will be no French troops in Iraq, not tomorrow, nor later,? he said.

Meanwhile, criminal charges were announced Friday against another American soldier accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners, this one seen alongside a female guard in a much publicized photo flashing a 'thumbs up' while posing beside a pyramid of naked Iraqi detainees.

Despite the outrage the pictures of Iraqi abuse have triggered around the world, some of the American soldiers implicated maintain they were only following orders.