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Confusion About Who Controls Shi'ite Shrine In Al-Najaf

20 August 2004 -- There are conflicting reports about developments around the Imam Ali Mosque in Al-Najaf, which has been occupied for the past two weeks by militia loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Earlier today, al-Sadr offered to hand over control of the Imam Ali Shrine to top Shi'ite religious authorities.

Police and witnesses said afterward that Iraqi security forces entered the mosque to find al-Sadr's militia had vacated the shrine.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry also confirmed the handover and said police found some 500 lightly armed men ready to surrender inside the shrine.

But U.S. Marines said they could not verify this information. A senior al-Sadr aide also later denied Iraqi police were in control of the mosque.

The unidentified aide said al-Sadr's militia will fight police if they try to seize the shrine.

And there are now reports of fresh fighting between U.S. troops and al-Sadr militia near the shrine.

(wire reports/cnn)