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Fresh Violence In Al-Najaf, Reporters Told To Leave

16 August 2004 -- Renewed fighting is being reported in Al-Najaf as Iraqi troops -- backed by U.S. soldiers -- appear to be nearing the city's Imam Ali shrine, a stronghold of militiamen loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Tank and gun fire could be heard today throughout the center of the holy city, as plumes of smoke spewed into the sky.

The violence prompted participants at a national conference in Baghdad to vote to send a delegation to Al-Najaf to try to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The vote came amid signals that U.S. and Iraqi forces may be delaying any full-scale assault for the moment. Meanwhile, journalists reporting from the strife-torn city are themselves feeling under attack, as Iraqi police ordered them to leave Al-Najaf yesterday, allegedly for their own safety.

Three U.S. soldiers were killed in the Iraqi province of Al-Najaf yesterday as a brief truce between insurgents loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S. and Iraqi forces collapsed amid renewed fighting.

News agencies quoted a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Sabah Kadhim, as saying late yesterday that a "major assault by forces will be launched quickly to bring the Al-Najaf fight to an end."

U.S. tanks and troops rolled into the center of the city yesterday, and fighting was reported amid the tombs of Al-Najaf's vast cemetery. Fresh clashes were reported today in Al-Najaf's Old City.

But news from Al-Najaf is being hampered by an order for journalists to leave the holy city, allegedly because Iraqi authorities could not guarantee their safety. Iraqi police yesterday surrounded a hotel in the city frequented by reporters and presented an evacuation order signed by the police chief.

The media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement condemning the order. RSF spokesman Regis Bourgeat said: "We learned [yesterday] that the Iraq authorities ordered journalists to leave the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf just before a major new U.S. offensive shall be led in the city. So for us, it's a blackout of news from the city, and it's completely unacceptable, and it's unprecedented in Iraq. We think that the presence of journalists in Najaf is vital, since we know that the worst atrocities are always committed in the absence of independent witnesses."

In an interview today with RFE/RL, Bourgeat said it is obvious that U.S. and Iraqi forces desire "a war without witnesses." As for journalists embedded with the U.S. military in Al-Najaf, Bourgeat said they are likely to have only a narrow view of hostilities.

"We know that these embedded journalists can only have a partial view of the situation, and maybe the armed forces can deal with the fact that they send these embedded journalists in the rear, and they won't see maybe the worst part of the offensive," he said.

"The Washington Post" quoted Wa'il Abd al-Latif, Iraq's minister of state for provincial affairs, as saying the government intends to give al-Sadr and his supporters "reasonable time" to withdraw from the Imam Ali shrine, Iraq's holiest Shi'a site. But he said if militiamen do not lay down their weapons soon, "we will pursue them."

Earlier this year, al-Sadr agreed to a truce after leading a bloody two-month rebellion against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Fighting between al-Sadr's militia and U.S. and Iraqi forces resumed earlier this month, however.

Participants at a national conference in Baghdad voted today to send a delegation to Al-Najaf as early today to convince al-Sadr to withdraw his fighters from the city and turn his Imam Al-Mahdi Army into a political party.

Baghdad Shi'a cleric Sheikh Husayn al-Sadr, a distant relative of Muqtada al-Sadr, told the conference, "There are inviolable conditions in civilized countries, particularly that there is no place for armed militias."

The French news agency AFP quoted an al-Sadr spokesman, Sheikh Ahmad Shaybani, as saying an agreement on these points can only come about through negotiation, not by a unilateral decision. "We are ready to defend ourselves as [much as] we are ready for peace," he said.

(compiled from staff and agency reports)

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