Baghdad, 23 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Sheikh Salah Jasem al-Obaidi, a spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr, told RFE/RL on 21 August that members of the radical Shi'a cleric's Imam Al-Mahdi Army have left the Imam Ali Shrine in central Al-Najaf. But al-Obaidi said that hundreds of the militia fighters are still sheltering within the courtyard of the shrine's compound.
Al-Obaidi said negotiations are continuing with the office of preeminent Shi'a religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to hand over the keys to the compound. Al-Obaidi said he hopes those negotiations will come to a conclusion in the coming days.
Al-Obaidi denied statements by officials from Iraq's interim government that Iraqi police and security forces had entered the shrine. He said the militia fighters have strong reasons for remaining inside compound's courtyard.
"The courtyard is a place [that is] different than the holy shrine," al-Obaidi said. "The courtyard is one of the places of battles between the Mahdi militia and American troops for several [reasons]. First, because the courtyard contains several cells that can't be bombed easily. So these cells are good shelters for the fighters of the Mahdi militia."
Al-Obaidi said he did not know the exact number of militia fighters inside the shrine or the courtyard until a few days ago when al-Sadr ordered many of them to leave. U.S. and Iraqi officials have said more than 1,000 gunmen had taken refuge in the shrine and the courtyard.
But Al-Sadr's Baghdad spokesman said the shrine itself is now locked with only a few militia fighters standing guard outside of it.
Al-Obaidi also has confirmed that Al-Sadr's office is negotiating to hand over control of the shrine to al-Sistani. But he said al-Sistani, who is recuperating from heart surgery in London, has been hesitant to get involved.
"We can't say that [al-Sistani] doesn't want to be a middleman between Muqtada Al-Sadr from one side and the Americans from the other side," al-Obaidi said. "Seyyed Sistani always wants to keep the perfect position for Al-Marjaiah [top Shi'a religious leadership]." "He does not have much trust in the styles of American troops and delegations or handling their problems."
As for the fate of al-Sadr himself, Al-Obaidi insisted that the elusive radical leader is still within the city of Al-Najaf.
"He is inside the old city of Najaf. I know him myself," Al-Obaidi said. "Believe me that Muqtada al-Sadr will not leave Najaf except to [go to] his grave."For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".Factbox: Iraq's Holy City of Al-Najaf