- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iranian diplomats traveled to the holy city of Najaf yesterday to help mediate a U.S. military standoff with an armed militia led by radical Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr just as gunmen killed an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad.

The Iranian official was fatally shot as he arrived for work at the embassy in Baghdad.

As yesterday’s morning rush hour wound down, the bullet-riddled body of Khalil Naimi, first secretary at the Iranian Embassy, was found slumped over the wheel of his car, which had run into a pole.

It was not clear whether the two events were related.

A recent spate of kidnappings and murders of foreigners by militant Islamist groups has prompted an exodus by private contractors, aid workers, journalists and potential investors.

In the Sunni Muslim-dominated area west of Baghdad, one eyewitness said he saw an explosion at a mosque about 10 miles north of Fallujah.

Fighting in the area has been intense, despite a week-old cease-fire and attempts by local clerics and Iraqis close to the United States to end the standoff.

Residents said mosques had broadcast loudspeaker appeals for police to return to duty and some had responded.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that the talks would not be indefinite.

“I think we have to be prepared — that there may be further military action in Fallujah,” he said.

Marines went on the offensive in Fallujah after the killings and mutilation of four Americans under contract to provide security services in Iraq.

Gen. Myers said “multiple channels,” including “groups without official status,” are being used in an effort to stop the fighting.

About 2,400 Marines have been fighting in Fallujah for nearly two weeks and 2,500 U.S. forces are poised to attack Najaf to arrest or kill Sheik al-Sadr and destroy his armed militia, known as Mahdi’s Army.

His militia seized control of police stations and government buildings in three Shi’ite cities, including Najaf, a week ago.

Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, has persuaded Sheik al-Sadr to give up control of the cities.

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