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Rebel Iraq Cleric, U.S. In Talks

U.S. military officials and representatives of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held talks Sunday aimed at reducing violence in the restive Baghdad slum of Sadr City, a day after clashes there killed 10 people, officials said.

British forces in the southern city of Basra, also the site of recent fighting, held similar talks with al-Sadr officials there.

Both areas had erupted in violence after U.S. forces and al-Sadr's militants began fighting in the holy city of Najaf three weeks ago, and the talks Sunday appeared to be an effort by both sides to expand on the peace deal that ended the Najaf crisis Friday.

An agreement, at least in Sadr City, remained elusive, however, with al-Sadr's aides demanding a U.S. pullout from the neighborhood, a condition U.S. officials refused.

In other developments:

  • Guerrillas launched an attack on the country's oil infrastructure in the south, blowing up several oil export pipelines and cutting already curtailed exports to about 500,000 barrels a day, an oil official said.
  • In the north, insurgents ambushed U.S. troops with rocket-propelled grenades near Mosul, sparking gunbattles that killed two attackers and wounded 34 civilians, the U.S. military said.
  • U.S. troops in the city of Samarra killed an insurgent who had stolen a truck at gunpoint, the U.S. military said.
  • Saboteurs blew up a pipeline in southern Iraq on Sunday in the latest attack targeting the country's crucial oil industry, a senior oil official said.
  • President Jacques Chirac vowed Sunday to spare no effort to free two French reporters held hostage in Iraq by militants reportedly demanding that France scrap its ban on Islamic head scarves in state schools.
  • Two Turkish hostages were freed by Iraqi militants Sunday, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said, less than a week after the men's employers said they were ending operations in Iraq to save the lives of their employees.
  • Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, who last week agreed to plead guilty to some charges in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, said in an interview published Sunday that "secret services" operating in the jail encouraged the humiliation of prisoners.
  • Iraq's deputy prime minister visited Tehran on Sunday in what appeared to be an attempt at fence-mending between the former enemies whose relations have been bruised by growing Iraqi allegations that Iran is supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
  • The Dutch foreign minister said Sunday that improved security in Iraq as opened the way for the European Union to discuss stepped up reconstruction efforts — even as his Iraqi counterpart conceded that security here remains precarious.
  • Kuwait earmarked Sunday $65 million in aid for neighboring Iraq, including $5 million for the city of Najaf, which is recovering from clashes between loyalists of a rebel Shiite cleric and U.S. forces.

    U.S. forces and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia have been fighting for weeks in Sadr city, the slum named for the rebel cleric's father. Though peace descended on Najaf on Friday, skirmishes continued Saturday in Baghdad, with militants firing mortars and automatic weapons at U.S. troops and tanks in the impoverished neighborhood.

    In response, al-Sadr representatives, tribal leaders, Shiite politicians, government officials and U.S. military officers met Sunday in Sadr City to discuss the violence.

    The head of the tribal negotiating team, Naim al-Bakhati, told reporters that all sides — including al-Sadr representatives — had agreed that damaged areas there be rebuilt, U.S. troops withdraw from the area except for their normal patrols and that Iraqi police be allowed to enter the slum.

    But "there was no agreement on the Mahdi Army handing over their weapons," al-Bakhati said.

    Sadr City police chief Col. Maarouf Moussa Omran said all sides agreed to observe a one-day truce until Monday morning to give the Iraqi government time to discuss the results of the meeting.

    But Lt. Col. Jim Hutton, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, said "there has been no agreement of any kind," adding that the talks were not negotiations.

    Sadr City remained relatively peaceful Sunday. Fighting Saturday in the slum killed 10 people and wounded 126, said Saad al-Amili, a Health Ministry official.

    In Basra, a British commander held talks with al-Sadr's top representative in the city, Sheik Asaad al-Basri, and the pro-al-Sadr deputy governor, Salam al-Maliki.

    Before the talks started, al-Basri told The Associated Press that "we want to avoid bloodshed but we have conditions that we will put forward to the British" including an amnesty for Mahdi Army members and compensation for victims of recent clashes.

    Al-Basri also said they wanted British forces to keep out of the city center and use mutually agreed roads to reach their bases around the city.

    Basra police chief Brig. Gen. Kadhim al-Ali said the two sides had reached an agreement that would be implemented in the next two days, pending the review of the British command.

    The British military, however, denied making any deal.

    "(The military) emphasized that we are here to support the Basra provincial council and that any negotiations or discussion must be with the Basra provisional council," said Maj. Charlie Mayo, a British military spokesman in Basra.

    Insurgents have launched repeated attacks on Iraq's vital oil industry in a bid to damage reconstruction efforts and undermine the interim government, which relies heavy on oil income.

    The latest attack occurred Sunday when assailants blew up several export pipelines in al-Radgha, about 30 miles southwest of Basra, an official at the state-run South Oil Co. said on condition of anonymity.

    Iraq exports about 90 percent of its oil out of the south and sabotage last week had already halved normal exports to about 900,000 barrels a day. Sunday's attack cut exports to about 500,000 barrels a day, a second official with the company said on condition of anonymity.

    If the fires aren't put out soon and other sabotaged lines aren't repaired, exports could be halted entirely, the official said.

    On Saturday, saboteurs blew up another pipeline in the West Qurna oilfields, about 90 miles north of Basra.

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