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US runs into defiance and clash
Sadr refuses to disband militia

Kufa (Iraq), April 16 (Reuters): Shia guerrillas clashed with US troops near Kufa today as their leader, rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, defied demands that he disband his militia to spare Iraq’s shrine cities from bloodshed.

A Syrian-born Canadian aid worker kidnapped on April 8 was brought to Sadr’s office in the nearby city of Najaf and set free after the fiery cleric urged the release of foreigners not involved in the US-led occupation.

“At first (the kidnappers) beat me, then they kept moving me to different locations every few hours,” Fadi Ihsan Fadel said at Sadr’s office, shortly after arriving.

Sadr, who launched a Shia uprising this month against the US-led occupation of Iraq, is holed up in Najaf with US forces poised outside vowing to kill or capture him.

The Czech foreign ministry said three Czech journalists had also been freed. “They are alive, healthy and are in good physical... condition at the Czech embassy in Baghdad,” foreign ministry spokesman Vit Kolar said.

Three freed Japanese hostages flew from Iraq to Dubai earlier today, but two Japanese remained missing, along with other foreigners seized in a spate of kidnappings this month.

A Danish businessman joined the hostage list. Danish media said he was probably seized during a highway robbery on Tuesday night, in Taji, north of Baghdad.

Blasts shook Kufa, where Sadr was preaching in the main mosque, and his militiamen said they ambushed a US convoy. Hospital sources said at least five people were killed and 20 wounded in Kufa.

The US military said eight Iraqis were killed and 17 wounded in the northern city of Mosul when mortar bombs fired by guerrillas missed their targets — a US base and a police station — last night.

In other violence in Iraq, US troops fought Sunni guerrillas in Falluja, west of Baghdad, and a hospital official said 15 people were killed and 20 wounded in overnight clashes.

America’s top general said yesterday Falluja truce talks could not go on forever. But Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said US officials were using “multiple channels” to pacify Falluja and avoid fighting in Najaf.

Defiant at Friday prayers, Sadr said he would not disband his militia under any circumstances “because I did not create it on my own but with the cooperation of the Iraqi people”.

The US military, with 2,500 troops near Najaf, says the Sadr’s Mehdi Army must be disbanded or destroyed, but they have allowed Shia clerics and an Iranian envoy to mediate.

Iranian envoy Hossein Sadeghi met officials of the US-led authority on Wednesday. Iran said his mission would go on even after an Iranian diplomat was shot dead in Baghdad yesterday. There was no sign military action was imminent in Najaf, home to some of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines. Any attack in Najaf could inflame Iraq’s Shia majority whose support is vital to US plans for the country’s political future.

Lebanon’s top Shia cleric said Washington would fan fury across the Muslim world if it invaded Najaf or attacked Sadr.

“All of this will set the ground burning beneath their feet, not just in Iraq, but in the whole of the Islamic world,” Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah said in a sermon.

Tens of thousands of Shias chanted support for Sadr in his main power base, the Baghdad slum district of Sadr City. “You Americans, do not fall into a quagmire and storm Najaf. Rivers of your blood will flow,” Sheikh Nasser al-Saedi told the ecstatic crowd thronging streets around a mosque.

“I saw at least two Humvees on fire and we also attacked armoured personnel carriers,” said one fighter in Kufa. “We attacked them again, but then they started mortaring our position so we had to retreat,” said the man, dressed in the Mehdi Army’s black uniform, as smoke rose above the town and militiamen tried to evacuate wounded fighters across a bridge.

In Karbala, another holy city where Sadr’s followers are in control, three Iraqi policeman were killed in clashes with Shia militiamen today, witnesses said. US Marines began an assault on Falluja, west of Baghdad, on April 5 after the killing and mutilation of four US private security guards in the city the previous week. Doctors say more than 600 Iraqis have died in fighting in Falluja since then.

A week ago, the US military said it had suspended offensive operations in Falluja but would hit back if attacked. Talks to stabilise a shaky truce have led to relative calm interspersed with fighting and air strikes.

At Baghdad airport, 118 people, mostly from Russia and Ukraine, boarded a plane sent from Russia to evacuate them. It was the second day of an evacuation organised after the kidnap and release of eight Russians and Ukrainians this week.

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