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U.S., Iraqi Forces Reinforce Positions In Al-Najaf --> 24 August 2004 -- News agencies are reporting that in Al-Najaf, Iraqi National Guardsmen have been deployed along U.S. troops positioned near the Imam Ali shrine, where Shi'ite militants fighting U.S. forces have been holed up for weeks.

The reports come as Iraq's interim Defense Minister Hazim Sha'lan al-Khuza'i said today that "the decisive hours are near" to ending the standoff. Al-Khuza'i and other Iraqi officials have made similar claims over the last week.

Earlier today, U.S. aircraft, artillery, and tanks were used in the latest assaults targeting the fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Reporting from Al-Najaf, RFE/RL correspondent Peyman Pejman said al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army has control of only the shrine and the area directly around the it.

"Talking to other reporters and residents in the area, the Al-Mahdi Army is still in control of the inner circles of the shrine [of Imam Ali], which would probably put them within about 400 or 500 [meters] of the shrine. The outer circle, the streets inside Al-Najaf are in the control of Iraqi forces and U.S. forces," Pejman said.

In Baghdad today, Iraq's environment and education ministers were both unharmed in two separate attacks on their respective convoys, which killed five of the ministers' bodyguards. An Islamist group, Tawhid and Jihad, linked to Jordanian militant Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi today posted a statement on an Internet site, saying it was responsible for the attack on the environment minister.


Factbox: Iraq's Holy City of Al-Najaf

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