Reports Of Karbala Deal Quashed
22 May 2004 -- A top aide to Muqtada al-Sadr effectively dismissed reports of a deal to halt fighting in the city of Karbala, saying fighters loyal to the Shi'a cleric will end their armed presence in Al-Najaf and Karbala only after it is clear that U.S. troops have withdrawn from the Iraqi holy cities.
Aide Qais al-Khazali also said al-Sadr's forces are demanding a guarantee that U.S. forces will not return to the holy cities.
A senior U.S. military official, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, today said no withdrawal was taking place in Karbala, although he confirmed that U.S. troops have repositioned some forces inside the embattled city.
Earlier reports today suggested that al-Sadr's office announced that its fighters had laid down their arms after weeks of efforts to negotiate a truce. The U.S. military has said it will not negotiate with al-Sadr, who is wanted in connection with the slaying of a rival cleric last year.
Iraq's most revered Shi'a cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, this week called on both sides to withdraw from the holy cities.
Witnesses said the city of Karbala was calm after heavy fighting the previous day, although damage to parts of the city was said to be extensive.
Al-Sadr's militia has mounted a stern challenge to the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to stabilize Iraq. U.S.-led forces are still in a standoff with insurgents in the holy Iraqi city of Al-Najaf.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military in Iraq said five people were killed today when a car bomb exploded near the Baghdad home of a deputy interior minister. The deputy minister, Abd al-Jabbar Yousif al-Shaikhli, and several others were injured in the incident, according to U.S. Captain Brian O'Malley.
O'Malley added that al-Shaikhli was "in stable condition at the hospital."
A group headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with suspected links to Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on an Islamist website. The statement pledges further attacks. Its authenticity could not be independently verified.
Al-Zarqawi's group also claimed credit for the suicide car bomb attack on 17 May that killed Iraqi Governing Council head Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad, also known as Izz al-Din Salim.
Also today, a series of loud explosions were heard in Baghdad. The blasts shook buildings in the center of the Iraqi capital at mid-afternoon local time. It was not immediately clear what caused the blasts, but some reports said at least one of the explosions was caused by a mortar shell fired by insurgents.
Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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