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Flashpoint Areas In Iraq Remain Tense But Relatively Calm

Prague, 16 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Reports say flashpoint areas in the central and southern parts of Iraq today remain tense but relatively quiet.

U.S. forces continue to engage Iraqi insurgents in sporadic fighting in the central city of Al-Fallujah. Reuters quoted an Iraqi hospital official today as saying 15 Iraqis were killed and 20 were wounded in clashes overnight in the city -- considered a focal point of a yearlong anti-U.S. insurgency.

An informal cease-fire in the city, in effect for about a week, expired today, but U.S. forces say they plan to meet with the insurgents to discuss a permanent truce. The U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, speaking yesterday to journalists in Baghdad, confirmed that negotiation efforts are under way.

"In Fallujah, as you know, there are negotiations ongoing, as well right now and we'll have to see how they play out. I think we have to be prepared and prepare ourselves that there may be further military action in Fallujah," Myers said.

U.S. Marines launched an assault on the city 10 days ago to quell the insurgency and to avenge the gruesome killings earlier of four U.S. contract workers. Reports last week from the initial fighting spoke of hundreds of Iraqi casualties, though U.S. sources say that number has been exaggerated for propaganda purposes.

In the south-central part of the country, some 2,500 U.S. troops remain encircled around the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf, where radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is reportedly still in hiding. Al-Sadr earlier this month led an insurrection against the U.S. occupation, taking several mostly Shi'a towns in the south and central regions of Iraq. It was the most serious challenge to U.S.-led rule since the end of the Iraq war a year ago. For the United States, it was an embarrassing display of discontent among a Shi'a population Washington was courting for support.

The United States is hoping a show of massive force around Al-Najaf will convince al-Sadr to surrender and disband his private militia. Al-Sadr is wanted not only for leading the uprising but also in connection with the murder last year of a Shi'a cleric.

Shi'a representatives of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council as well as moderate Shi'a elements and possibly also representatives of the Iranian government are negotiating to end the standoff. Reports say the sides are close to a deal that would see al-Sadr's militia disarm in exchange for possible legal guarantees for al-Sadr.

Correspondents say any major U.S. military action in Al-Najaf would risk further alienating the country's majority Shi'a Muslim community. The Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" today reiterated that fear. The paper said, "Going into Najaf would be a disaster, it would make the main Shi'a leaders turn away from us." Occupation forces in the Al-Najaf area are led by a Polish military command.

In Japan, officials reacted today with relief at the release unharmed of three Japanese hostages held by Iraqi insurgents. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, speaking today in Tokyo, said: "We refused to bend to the will of the criminal group while trying to rescue the hostages safely. It was a very difficult operation."

The high-profile kidnapping presented Koizumi with his most difficult challenge to date in office. Japan's involvement in the U.S.-led coalition remains unpopular at home and fears were that the hostage taking could galvanize the anti-Iraq opposition. Two other Japanese nationals remain hostages in a separate incident. There was no word today on their fate.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi today spoke of what she called the "warm feelings" toward Japan felt by a majority of the Iraqi people. "Regarding the case of the hostages, I believe that the Iraqi people's warm feeling toward Japan helped with the rescue of the three," she said. "People in Iraq seem to appreciate our work to help them with the reconstruction of their country and there is a long history between Japan and Iraq."

At least 20 foreigners have been abducted this month in Iraq. The Danish Foreign Ministry today said a Danish businessman is believed to have been kidnapped. On 14 April, kidnappers executed an Italian hostage, the first known killing of a hostage during the current crisis.