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Iraq: Tribal Leaders Meet U.S., Iraqi Officials For Al-Sadr City Talks

Shi'a tribal leaders in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City district met today with Iraqi police and U.S. Army officials for talks on how to restore calm amid almost daily clashes that have killed and injured many people. Some 2 million people live in the impoverished and predominantly Shi'a district, which has become a power base of the radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia. The fighting has continued in Al-Sadr City between the militia and U.S. forces despite a peace deal that was brokered in Al-Najaf on 27 August by Iraq's most senior Shi'a cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

29 August 2004 -- Today's security talks in Al-Sadr City follow clashes there yesterday and early today that the Iraqi Health Ministry says killed at least 10 people and injured scores of others.

The violence erupted as residents of the southern Iraqi city of Al-Najaf began digging out from rubble and debris left by three weeks of clashes between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Although some fighting was reported overnight in Al-Najaf, the Shi'a holy city has been relatively calm since 27 August when al-Sadr's militiamen withdrew from the Imam Ali Shrine under the peace deal brokered by al-Sistani.

Karim al-Bikhassi, a Shi'a tribal leader in Al-Sadr City, says he was urged by al-Sadr to take part in the talks with Iraqi government officials and the U.S. Army.

"We represent the oppressed people who love peace and security and democracy, which [the United States] promised us. We have agreed with al-Sadr's office and we held talks with the Americans and we reached these decisions. First, ending fighting between the two sides. Second, stop all American patrols or the entry of American forces into Al-Sadr City," al-Bikhassi said.

A U.S. Army spokesman, Lieutenant Dave Swanson, confirmed that the chief aim of the talks is to restore security in Al-Sadr City.

"I believe what the [senior U.S. Army representative] is discussing with the sheikhs is the restoration of security in the city and how best to begin restoring services to the citizens of Al-Sadr City once we have established security again," Swanson said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi vowed late yesterday to crush any of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militiamen who refuse to disarm under the peace deal. Allawi said there are some elements of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army outside Al-Najaf that continue to carry out attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces and infrastructure targets.

An explosion damaged a pipeline near the southern port city of Al-Basrah today. Correspondents report that pipelines in that area carry oil and gas from the Rumaila oilfield to the oil terminals at Al-Basrah port. An official from Iraq's South Oil Company said the blast was not the result of any recent attack. Rather, he said it was caused by the ignition of oil and gas that have flooded the southern Rumaila oilfield area as a result of previous attacks.

In another development, France's government convened a crisis meeting today concerning the fate of two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq.

The meeting in Paris included top government officials and leaders of France's Muslim comunity. Their captors are demanding the French government rescind a ban on Muslim headscarves in French state schools, due to begin on 1 September.