NAJAF, Iraq (AP) – Militants loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr kept their hold on a revered shrine, and clashes flared in Najaf on Saturday, raising fears that a resolution to the crisis in the holy city could collapse amid bickering between Shiite leaders.

The clashes between U.S. troops and al-Sadr fighters were brief but heavy, punctuated by gunfire and explosions, with one blast hitting the street 50 yards from the sacred Imam Ali Shrine at the center of the standoff.

Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said U.S. troops came under mortar attack in the Old City and destroyed two militant mortar positions with gunfire and an Apache helicopter attack.

The fighting died down after about 45 minutes, returning the city to the relative calm that it has seen.

Still, the flare-up reflected the danger that once again peace efforts could fall apart, mired in last-minute delays. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia still held the Imam Ali Shrine, their stronghold throughout this month’s fighting, and while it has agreed to hand it over to Shiite religious authorities, the two sides are now squabbling over how to do so.

Meanwhile, a series of attacks targeting U.S. and Iraqi forces throughout Iraq on Saturday killed a U.S. soldier, a Polish soldier and five Iraqis. Militants have been using car bombs, assassinations, sabotage, kidnappings and other attacks in a 16-month insurgency aimed at destabilizing the country.

But the violence in Najaf, which had spread to other Shiite communities, posed the greatest risk to the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Government officials had threatened to raid the mosque to set an example to other insurgent groups, but such an operation risked turning the nation’s majority Shiites against the government.

The crisis appeared on the verge of resolution Friday, when insurgents decided to remove their weapons from the shrine and said they were willing to turn the holy site over to representatives of Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

An Interior Ministry spokesman even claimed that police had entered the shrine, clearing it of militants and arresting gunmen. But the claim turned out to be incorrect, and officials Saturday could not be reached to explain the mistake.

And the transferring of the shrine to al-Sistani’s hands bogged down Saturday amid arguments over its implementation. Al-Sadr’s followers said they tried to give the shrine’s keys to al-Sistani’s representatives, who refused to accept them.

But an aide to al-Sistani – who is in London undergoing medical treatment – said al-Sadr’s followers must leave the holy shrine’s compound, “close the doors and hand over the keys.”

“We cannot receive the shrine compound unless they agree to this formula,” said the aide, Sheik Hamed Khafaf.

Sheik Ali Smeisim, al-Sadr’s chief lieutenant, said the militants would not leave until a delegation from al-Sistani’s office inspects the shrine to ensure its treasures are intact, so they could not be accused of taking anything.

Khafaf said the violence precludes such a delegation.

The standoff has frustrated many in Najaf, who have suffered cuts in their water and electricity, had their streets rocked by explosions and seen scores of their innocent neighbors killed since the fighting started Aug. 5.

“All parties are stalling,” said Saeed Mohammed, 41. “There has been no change, only more shelling and clashes that have hurt the city even more.”

The proposed handover of the shrine to religious authorities offered a face-saving way to end the fighting, allowing Iraq’s interim government to keep its pledge not to negotiate and the militants to say they had not capitulated.

As the crisis continued, al-Sadr aide Sheik Awas al-Khafaji said Saturday that kidnappers had lifted their threat to kill a U.S. journalist abducted in the southern city of Nasiriyah along with his Iraqi translator Aug. 13.

The kidnappers, calling themselves the Martyrs Brigade, threatened Thursday to kill Micah Garen of New York within 48 hours if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf.

Al-Khafaji said Saturday that mediators told him the death threat had been removed and they were working for Garen’s release.

“We hope that he will be released today and our efforts would be fruitful,” he said Saturday. “As for the Iraqi translator, we have received assurances that he is going to be released with the journalist.”

Violence continued across the country.

Insurgents bombed an oil pipeline in Berjisiya, 20 miles southwest of the southern city of Basra on Saturday, setting it ablaze, said Lt. Mohammed al-Mousawi of the Iraqi National Guard.

The pipeline, which connects the Rumeila oilfields with export storage tanks in the Faw peninsula, had been shut down for a week due to threats from insurgents, and the attack did not appear likely to effect exports.

Early Saturday, attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. military vehicle in Baghdad, killing one U.S. soldier and wounding two others, the military said. As of Friday, 949 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Also Saturday, a Polish soldier was killed and six more were injured when a car bomb exploded next to their military convoy about 11:50 a.m. outside the city of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, Polish Maj. Krzysztof Plazuk said.

Polish troops engaged in a gunbattle with the insurgents, killing some of them, he said. The death of Pfc. Krystian Andrzejczak, 24, brought to 10 the number of Polish soldiers killed in Iraq.

In other violence Saturday:

– One Iraqi National Guard soldier was killed and two guardsmen and three civilians were wounded when a bomb exploded in the northern city of Mosul, said Mahmoud Saadallah, a National Guard official.

– Assailants detonated a roadside bomb after a U.S. convoy drove by in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing two civilians and injuring four others, said Hussein Ali, a hospital official.

– A roadside bomb exploded in Sabtiya, two miles north of Baqouba, after a U.S. convoy passed, killing a sanitation worker cleaning the street and wounding another Iraqi, said hospital official Mudher Sabah.

– In Ramadi, 70 miles, west of Baghdad, gunmen shot dead Lt. Col. Saad Smayer, a senior police officer, as he left home for work, said provincial police chief Maj. Gen. Jaadan Mohammed al-Alwan.

AP-ES-08-21-04 1405EDT



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