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21 August 2004 -- Militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr appeared to remain in control of a holy mosque in Al-Najaf today despite the radical Shi'ite cleric's pledge to hand the mosque over to religious authorities.

Al-Sadr's militia has been holed up for more than two weeks in the Imam Ali Mosque compound.

A top al-Sadr aide, Sheikh Ahmed al-Sheibani, said final details of the handover of the site to representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani were still being worked out today.

But al-Sheibani also told reporters that al-Sadr's militia will continue to "defend the shrine and Najaf" after it hands over the keys to the mosque.

Al-Sistani's representatives could not immediately be reached for comment. They said yesterday that the militia had to leave the mosque before they would take responsibility for it.

Al-Najaf appeared to be largely calm today, after fierce fighting late in the week.

(wire reports)
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