- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s most respected Shi’ite cleric urged both U.S. soldiers and a radical cleric’s militia yesterday to withdraw from two Shi’ite holy cities where fighting has raged near some of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines.

A statement released in Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani’s name urged Iraqis not to travel to Najaf to join protests called by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Instead, he said, Shi’ites should join rallies elsewhere to demand that Najaf and Karbala “be rid of all armed manifestations.”

However, the statement, which Ayatollah al-Sistani’s aides distributed to reporters after nighttime skirmishes in Najaf, did not include his personal seal, nor was it posted on his Web site, as is customary with religious decrees, or fatwas, which are binding on his followers.

An aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the ayatollah wants both the Americans and Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army out of the holy cities in southern Iraq, but has avoided an explicit call because he knows neither side is prepared to accept it.

Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, deputy commander of the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division, said there were indications that Sheik al-Sadr was trying to bring in fighters to reinforce his militia in Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad.

“We are doing our best to intercept those people,” Gen. Hertling said at Camp Lima, a military base on the outskirts of the city.

Coalition officials estimate that about 265 Iraqi fighters have been killed since the uprising began in early April. According to an Associated Press tally, 254 Iraqis have been killed since April 5.

Early yesterday, U.S. troops killed nine fighters loyal to Sheik al-Sadr in Karbala, according to a witness who saw their bodies. Ten Iraqi fighters were wounded in the clashes, which lasted more than an hour on streets near the city’s Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines.

At least five Iraqi insurgents were killed during clashes in Karbala later in the day, according to Capt. Noel Gorospe, a U.S. military spokesman there.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, Iraqi officials announced that the FBI would help an Iraqi team investigate Monday’s killing of the head of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

Izzadine Saleem was killed in a suicide bombing at a checkpoint near the coalition headquarters in Baghdad.

Interior Minister Samir Shaker Mahmoud al-Sumeidi said yesterday that the FBI would help an Iraqi team investigating the killing. He said he was asking U.S. authorities whether Mr. Saleem may have been delayed or turned away at the checkpoint where he died because he lacked the authorized pass to get in.

At least six others were killed and 16 were wounded, including two U.S. soldiers. A previously unknown group, the Arab Resistance Movement, claimed responsibility, saying in a Web site posting that two of its fighters carried out the attack on “the traitor and mercenary” Mr. Saleem.

The top U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer; U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi; the new Governing Council president, Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim civil engineer from Mosul; and other members of the council attended a memorial service for Mr. Saleem yesterday.

Mr. Saleem’s body was later flown in a military plane to his southern hometown of Basra, where British troops delivered the coffin to Iraqi police ahead of a ceremony at a mosque.

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