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Shiite Leader Asks Both Sides to Leave Holy Cities

May 19, 2004|From Times Wire Services

NAJAF, Iraq — As fighting continued between U.S. forces and a radical cleric's militia in Najaf and Karbala, Iraq's most respected Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, urged both sides Tuesday to withdraw from the holy cities.

On the edge of Najaf, fighters loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr attacked a U.S. base with mortar rounds, witnesses said. Two U.S. tanks stationed around the main police station moved toward the base and were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, the witnesses said.

There was no immediate word on casualties.

Before dawn Tuesday, U.S. troops killed nine fighters loyal to Sadr in Karbala, said Mutaz Hasani, a witness who said he saw their bodies. At least five insurgents were killed during clashes in Karbala later in the day, said Capt. Noel Gorospe, a U.S. military spokesman there.

A statement released in Sistani's name urged Iraqis not to travel to Najaf to join protests called by Sadr. Instead, he said, Shiites should join rallies elsewhere to demand that Najaf and Karbala "be rid of all armed manifestations."

However, the statement, which Sistani's aides distributed to reporters, did not include the ayatollah's personal seal, nor was it posted on his website, as is customary with religious decrees that are binding on his followers.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials said the FBI would help investigate Monday's killing of the head of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Ezzedine Salim's funeral was Tuesday.

In Al Anbar province, which includes Fallouja, a Marine was killed in action, the U.S. military said, raising the number of American troops who have died in the conflict to nearly 790.

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