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Tense Talks Reopen In Central Iraq

U.S. troops in Iraq 17 April 2004 -- Senior U.S. military commanders and coalition officials opened a second day of talks with Iraqi community leaders in the embattled city of Al-Fallujah today.

Negotiators arranged several temporary cease-fires last week after intense fighting in the town. Scores of U.S. soldiers and more than 600 Iraqis have died in fighting there over the past two weeks.

In Baghdad today, Iraqi abductors freed two more Japanese hostages. A committee of Sunni Muslim scholars arranged the release. Three Czech journalists captured a week ago and freed yesterday were expected to leave for Prague later today.

A U.S. soldier evidently remains a captive of armed militants, who said they hope to exchange him for prisoners captured by the U.S.-led coalition. The Qatari-based Al-Jazeera satellite station broadcast a video of the man yesterday.

In the southern city of Al-Najaf today, a standoff continues between the U.S.-led coalition and radical militia leader and Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. A spokesman for al-Sadr said that he fears U.S. forces are preparing to attack the city.

Yesterday, a spokesman for Shi'a Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warned the Unites States against entering the holy cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala, calling them "red lines."

The U.S. military today closed highways north and south of Baghdad, saying continued guerrilla attacks have made them unsafe for civilian use.

The decision came hours after U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged to remain united in the fight to eliminate violence in Iraq.

"The 30 June date for the transfer of sovereignty will be kept," Bush said, vowing not to "waver in the face of fear and intimidation." "This transfer will demonstrate to the Iraqi people that our coalition has no interest in occupation. On that date, the Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist, but coalition forces will remain in Iraq to help the new government succeed."


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