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Religious Authorities To Guard Al-Najaf Mosque

23 August 2004 -- A senior aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said today that religious authorities in the city of Al-Najaf will be responsible for security at a holy site where al-Sadr's fighters are holed up.

Ahmed al-Sheibani, who is also a commander of al-Sadr's militia, previously said that the fighters would continue to guard the Imam Ali Mosque even if they handed over the keys to the compound to the religious authorities.

Negotiations on the handover between al-Sadr's militia and representatives of influential Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have stalled. Speaking to reporters inside the mosque today, al-Sheibani said it was al-Sistani's side that suspended the talks.

Al-Sheibani's comments came amid reports of renewed fighting between militiamen and U.S. forces in Al-Najaf today.

Reuters reported numerous explosions and gunfire around the Imam Ali Mosque, after U.S. aircraft overnight attacked militant positions around Al-Najaf's Old City.

Al-Shaibani said U.S. fire yesterday had damaged the outer wall of the mosque compound.

The claim could not be independently confirmed and U.S. forces denied hitting the wall.


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