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Sistani begins talks, 74 killed in mosque attack

Najaf, Aug. 26 (Reuters): Iraq’s most revered cleric arrived in Najaf today to try to end a bloody three-week uprising but attacks on crowds of Shias that killed at least 74 inflamed tensions as tens of thousands converged on the city.

Al Arabiya television said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had begun peace negotiations with rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose fighters have refused to lay down their weapons and leave Najaf’s sacred Imam Ali mosque.

The bloodshed in Najaf and nearby Kufa came as Sistani’s efforts to try to persuade the Mehdi Army militia to leave Iraq’s holiest Shia shrine appeared to be gaining momentum. Sistani has unveiled a plan to end the rebellion.

At least 15 Sistani supporters were shot dead in Najaf and 65 wounded when gunmen opened fire at police who were trying to control a crowd, prompting police to shoot back, witnesses said.

“Suddenly armed men joined our group and fired at the police. The police started firing everywhere,” witness Hazim Kareem said at Najaf’s hospital, where bodies dripping with blood were piled on stretchers. A hospital worker added: “Go look at the morgue, it's full.”

In nearby Kufa, a mortar attack on the town’s main mosque killed at least 25 Sadr supporters as hundreds of his men inside prepared to march on Najaf, officials said.

Shia marchers were fired on in Kufa around the same time and at least 20 were killed, a Reuters photographer on the scene said. It was unclear who carried out the attacks.

Iraq’s health ministry said the latest figures available showed 74 people had been killed in today’s attacks.

Television pictures showed dozens of wounded men lying in pools of blood around Kufa mosque. Fighting in Najaf, however, appeared to have eased as a government ceasefire took effect. The US military said it had suspended offensive operations at the request of the Iraqi government.

Sistani drove into Najaf from Basra in a huge convoy, guarded by dozens of police pickups with their sirens wailing. Scores of police brandished AK-47 rifles as they drove past thousands lining the streets leading into Najaf.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis in cars and on foot, many appearing to respond to Sistani’s call to rescue the holy city, converged on Najaf from several regions, witnesses said. But Sistani, 73, told them to wait at the city’s outskirts.

Both the moderate Sistani and the radical Sadr have called on their supporters to go to Najaf, where hundreds have been killed in the past three weeks in fighting between the Mehdi Army militia and US and Iraqi government forces.

The clashes have driven oil prices to record highs and undermined interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

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