- 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.

But militiamen in Najaf prepared for battle yesterday by taking up positions in buildings on the outskirts of the city, said Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, head of the U.S. troops amassed outside the city.

Meanwhile, three Japanese hostages — two men and a woman — were freed yesterday. They were handed over by their captors to a Sunni organization in Baghdad, which has been facilitating hostage releases and were taken to the Japanese Embassy.

There was no word on two other Japanese civilians, who have been reported missing near Baghdad.

Harith al-Dari, a leader of the Sunni organization, the Muslim Clerics Association, said the group had no direct links with the kidnappers and was seeking the release of all foreign civilian hostages.

Iranian envoy Hussein Sadeqi headed to Najaf yesterday, after meetings Wednesday with Massoud Barzani, a Kurdish leader who is the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Also yesterday, three Russian planes were sent to evacuate 366 citizens of Russia and Ukraine, including those who were kidnapped and released earlier this week. The abducted were three Russians and five Ukrainians.

The wave of abductions — at least 19 persons remain unaccounted for — has sent a chill through foreigners in Iraq.

A French television journalist who was freed late Wednesday after four days in captivity told the Associated Press he repeatedly was interrogated by kidnappers who demanded to know whether he was an Israeli spy. He proved he was French by drawing a map of France, a nation insurgents look on more favorably because it has not joined the U.S.-led coalition.

Reports by a leading Polish newspaper in Warsaw said yesterday Polish military officials responsible for security in part of southern Iraq are arguing against taking Sheik al-Sadr by force in Najaf.

“Going into Najaf will be a disaster, it will make the main Shi’ite leaders turn away from us,” Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper quoted a senior diplomatic source as saying. “If Sadr gives up on violence, we should be talking with him. We want to talk with anyone in Iraq who doesn’t shoot at us.”

Poland, a staunch ally of the United States, has 2,400 troops in Iraq and leads a multinational force based in Karbala in the Shi’ite-dominated south-central zone of the country.

Yesterday, Polish forces in Iraq said they were blindsided by the violence from Sheik al-Sadr’s followers, because U.S. officials did not warn them of actions that triggered the bloodshed.

Lt. Col. Robert Strzelecki, a spokesman for the Poles, said the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority did not inform the multinational division in advance of a decision to shut down a newspaper associated with Sheik al-Sadr or about the detention of a key lieutenant to the Shi’ite cleric.

Asked whether there was a difference of opinion with Washington over Najaf, Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski told the newspaper: “Our currency is dialogue and understanding. We do not need new troops in Iraq, just [new] political initiatives.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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