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U.S. Forces Close In On Al-Najaf

Baghdad, 14 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. forces tightened their grip today around the Iraqi town of Al-Najaf, where they believe Shi'a cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr is sheltering.

Iran said that the United States asked it to help calm the Iraq crisis. An official Iranian delegation has flown to Baghdad to assess the situation.

Reports say a five-day-old cease-fire called between coalition forces and insurgents continues to have some effect, although the opposing sides have clashed on the ground and U.S. forces have sent in air strikes.

Leading Iraqi Shi'a Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini and two other grand ayatollahs reportedly intervened with al-Sadr and persuaded him to negotiate with moderate Iraqi leaders and coalition representatives without preconditions.

"In the beginning there were conditions for entering into negotiations [with coalition forces], which included the withdrawal of troops from the residential area and freeing all the detainees," an al-Sadr aide told a news conference in Al-Najaf today. "But as a result of the intervention of the religious authority, Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr dropped these conditions and accepted to enter into negotiations without the mentioned conditions. The only party or the only person that is authorized to enter into negotiations is the religious authority."

The top U.S. military commander, General Richard Myers, meanwhile, said today that violence could escalate temporarily in Iraq if al-Sadr is captured. "He [al-Sadr] has, as we saw, some following that can be very violent, and it may well be that, if he is captured, violence could increase for a bit. But I think it would be very temporary."

Myers made his remarks in Kuwait, where he was having talks with the country's leaders about Iraq.

Some 2,500 U.S. troops are massed on the outskirts of the Iraqi city of Al-Najaf, where al-Sadr is believed to be located. Al-Sadr is the leader of a Shi'a militia that this month has led a violent revolt against coalition forces in areas of Baghdad and southern Iraq.

A number of civilians believed to be hostages held by various insurgent groups continue to concern international authorities. French television reporter Alexandre Jordanov, who was taken hostage south of Baghdad on 11 April, has been freed unharmed. Other known abductees include three Japanese, four Italians, three Czechs, an American, a Canadian, and an Israeli.

UN envoy to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi said today following two weeks of exploratory talks on political transition in Iraq that the country could convene a national assembly in July to choose a council to advise Iraq's interim government, soon after Iraq is slated to regain its sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition on 30 June.

A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman announced today that Islamabad is weighing a U.S. request for a "small number" of Pakistani troops to protect the United Nations in Iraq. Any decision by the government in Pakistan -- a predominantly Muslim country that is already facing hard-line opposition to cooperation with the U.S.-led military intervention in neighboring Afghanistan -- will reflect considerations of the security situation in Iraq, the spokesman said.

In Washington today, the U.S. Defense Department said that 688 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, and that 3,269 others have been wounded.