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Since 1st March, 1999
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US battles rebels near Shia shrines
Iraqi militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr pose with parts of a destroyed US military vehicle in Najaf. (AFP)

Karbala, May 15 (Reuters): US-led forces battled insurgents around some of the holiest Shia shrines in Iraq today as international pressure built for an interim government to be given real control of military affairs.

At least four members of rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia were killed in fighting near the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas in Karbala, some of the most sacred ground in Shia Islam, a US spokesman said.

Tank fire echoed through the narrow streets in the area.

In nearby Najaf, after heavy fighting yesterday, at least two US tanks took up position outside the main police station about 2 km from the Imam Ali mosque.

The fighting set off what US military spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt called a “minor uprising” in towns in the mainly Shia south and in Baghdad, where he said 21 insurgents were killed, most of them in Shia Sadr City.

An umbrella group of Shia religious leaders in Kuwait blasted US-led forces for entering the holy cities and demanded they and Sadr’s militia pull out.

Iraqi forces are fighting alongside US troops in Karbala, but Washington means to keep control over them after a formal handover of sovereignty to an interim government on June 30.

It says the security forces, being rebuilt after Saddam Hussein’s military was disbanded following the US-led invasion last year, will not be ready to take over when the interim government takes office.

But pressure is mounting on the US, even from its allies with troops in Iraq, to yield real power and effective military command to the body. Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the US-backed governing council expected to form its core, said Iraqis would not “accept limited, questionable sovereignty”.

“They insist on complete sovereignty. That means they should have complete control over their armed forces,” he said. Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini, whose country is part of the US-led coalition, called for Iraqis to be able to veto an attack such as that on Falluja, west of Baghdad, last month in which hundreds of people are thought to have died.

“If we imagine a unilateral decision by coalition forces after June 30, without listening to the Iraqi people or without giving them the power to say ‘no,’ there won’t be a transfer of power,” Frattini said after a Group of Eight nations meeting.

US secretary of state Colin Powell, host of the G8 talks in Washington, insisted the US military commander in Iraq should remain “free to take whatever decisions he believes are appropriate to accomplish his mission”.

Powell, and the White House, said US troops would leave if the interim government asked them to, but also made clear they thought that highly unlikely.

The clash over the June 30 handover threatens another showdown at the UN Security Council, where the US hopes to hammer out a resolution putting a stamp of approval on what it says is a transfer, albeit limited, of sovereignty.

The issue is also complicated by the exposure of abuse of prisoners by US guards at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, which was notorious under Saddam for torture.

Four soldiers, so far, will be court-martialled for abusing prisoners in a scandal which has dented the hopes of President George W. Bush for a second term in November elections.

One of Iraq’s most widely read newspapers joined the chorus of demands that defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who visited Abu Ghraib two days ago, quit over the scandal.

“Rumsfeld, who is known for his history of collaboration with Saddam, should have announced his resignation from Baghdad to satisfy the oppressed Iraqi people,” Azzaman said in a rare front-page editorial. British troops heading for Amara from their base in Basra killed 16 Iraqis as the soldiers fought their way through three ambushes.

Mirror says sorry

The Daily Mirror newspaper published a front page apology today for publishing faked photographs of the alleged abuse of iraqi prisoners by British forces.

“Sorry.. We were hoaxed,”' read the banner headline on the front of the tabloid.

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