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U.S. aircraft today attacked Shi'a militant positions in Al-Najaf as fighting continued in the Iraqi holy city. Reports say U.S. forces, backed by tanks and aircraft, appear to be moving closer to the Imam Ali shrine, the base of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army fighters loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Prague, 23 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Reports say fighting between the U.S. military and radical Shi'a forces has resumed in the Iraqi holy city of Al-Najaf.

A senior aide to al-Sadr, Ahmad al-Shaybani, said U.S shells had fallen in the vicinity of the city's holy shrine and broke a hole in its outer wall. He said several people were killed and injured. The claims cannot be independently confirmed.

The whereabouts of al-Sadr, an anti-U.S. cleric who has led the months-long uprising, are unknown. The Baghdad spokesman for the cleric, Sheikh Salah Jasim al-Obaidi, told RFE/RL that al-Sadr is inside Al-Najaf. "He is inside the old city of Al-Najaf. I know him myself," he said. "Believe me that Muqtada al-Sadr will not leave Al-Najaf except to [go to] his grave."

The fighting comes amid hopes that talks to end the crisis will resume. Al-Sadr aides say they still want to hand over the administration of the shrine to Iraq's most senior Shi'a authorities led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Sheikh Akhmad al-Shaybani says the rebels are ready for the handover but that it should be done legally. "Now, we are in front of you and the world and we are ready to hand over the sacred holy shrine with what is in it and [comply with] what the religious authorities order," he said. "But the only issue remaining, as you know, is that a special committee should be assembled by al-Sistani's office or the other religious authorities with al-Sistani."

Al-Sistani, who lives in Al-Najaf, is now in London recovering from surgery.

Meanwhile, Iraqi militants have released U.S. reporter Micah Garen, who was abducted on 13 August. He and his interpreter were seized in the southern Iraqi town of Al-Nasiriyah.

An al-Sadr aide in Al-Nasiriyah, Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji, told Arab-language Al-Jazeera television Garen's abductors had approached his office after realizing the journalist had worked to "uncover truth about events in Iraq. Especially in Al-Nasiriyah." He said the office did everything to free the journalist.

"When we heard about the kidnapping of our brother, Micah Garen, we exerted our best efforts to find him and we felt optimistic when we found out that the group that kidnapped him had demanded an end to the American siege of the holy city of Al-Najaf [because that is] a demand we all call for," al-Khafaji said.

Garen, speaking in al-Sadr's office in Al-Nasiriyah, expressed thanks for his release. "[I'd like to] thank the al-Sadr office for the work in releasing me and I hope that I can continue the work that I'm doing here in Iraq which is trying to help the people here," Garen said.

Meanwhile, there was no information on the whereabouts of two French reporters, Georges Malbrunot and Cristian Chesnot, or Italy's Enzo Baldoni, who were recently abducted in Iraq.

(compiled from staff and agency reports)

Factbox: Iraq's Holy City of Al-Najaf

For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".
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