Iraqi police fire warning shots near Kufa; France says hostages are alive

Followers of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr shout slogans supporting him in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Friday Sept. 3, 2004, after it became known that his followers were finally able to offer prayers outside the Kufa mosque in Najaf, despite initial police resistance. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Followers of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr shout slogans supporting him in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Friday Sept. 3, 2004, after it became known that his followers were finally able to offer prayers outside the Kufa mosque in Najaf, despite initial police resistance. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Iraqi police fired warning shots and barred vehicle traffic leading to Kufa on Friday, fearing an outbreak of violence as hundreds of worshippers descended on the holy city for the first weekly prayers since radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr relinquished control of its revered shrine under a peace deal.

Separately, France said it had received word that two French reporters held captive in Iraq were alive while one of their employers claimed the kidnappers had handed them over to an Iraqi opposition group, raising hopes that the hostages could soon be released.

Also Friday, firefighters fought a massive oil pipeline fire that raged in Riyadh about 40 miles southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, a day after saboteurs detonated explosives Thursday on the line linking fields near Kirkuk with the oil refinery of Beiji, said Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin of the Iraqi National Guard.

Al-Sadr aides initially said the cleric planned to give a Friday sermon at the Kufa mosque, but he later abandoned the idea amid fears that it could exacerbate tensions.

Iraqi police and national guardsmen set up checkpoints, barring all cars from entering the city and limiting the number of worshippers allowed in. Nevertheless, some 700 people gathered around the shrine.

Ahmed al-Shaibani, an al-Sadr aide, accused police forces of arresting dozens of the cleric's followers in Kufa and the nearby city of Najaf, which was devastated by three weeks of bitter fighting between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's Mahdi militia that ended last week.

Despite the peace deal in Najaf, many members of al-Sadr's militia are thought to have returned with their weapons to their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City and the cleric's representatives and Iraq's interim government have been seeking common ground to end fighting there.

"We consider ourselves to be in a state of war against the Iraqi police" al-Shaibani said.

In Najaf, meanwhile, dozens of protesters chanted slogans denouncing al-Sadr and blaming him for the destruction. They also demanded that al-Sadr and his Mahdi militiamen leave the city.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said two U.S. soldiers were wounded when they were hit by shrapnel when their convoy came under attack while on patrol near the city of Tikrit.

Jean de Belot, managing editor of Le Figaro newspaper, said the militants who claimed to be holding the French reporters, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, had handed them over to an Iraqi Sunni Muslim opposition group.

He said the opposition group favors the release of the hostages, but he stressed the status of the two Frenchmen wasn't completely clear.

"That is an extremely positive point," de Belot told French radio. "But we must be prudent in this kind of mixed-up situation because we know well that until the good news arrives, we can't let ourselves be absolutely reassured."

In Amman, Jordan, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier also sounded cautiously optimistic.

"According to the indications which were given to us and we are studying at this moment with caution, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are alive, in good health and are being well treated," he said at a news conference.

The reports came amid frantic activity to win the releases - efforts that were spurred on by the passage of a deadline for the French government to revoke a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public schools that went into effect Thursday.

A militant group calling itself "The Islamic Army of Iraq" said it had kidnapped the reporters and demanded that France lift its headscarf ban, but the government refused. Malbrunot, 41, reports for the daily Le Figaro and Chesnot, 37, is with Radio France International. They were last heard from on Aug. 19 as they set off for the southern city of Najaf. Their Syrian driver also vanished.

Militants waging a violent 16-month insurgency in Iraq have increasingly turned to kidnapping foreigners here as part of an effort to drive out coalition forces and contractors. In the past week, militant have killed an Italian journalist and 12 Nepalese workers, while seven truckers from India, Kenya and Egypt were released after their employer paid a $500,000 ransom.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that the Bush administration miscalculated the strength of the insurgency here but said the United States would "not become faint of heart" in enforcing its Iraq policy.

"What we have to do is to defeat this insurgency," Powell said in an interview Wednesday in Panama to Panama's TVN Channel 2. A text was released Thursday by the State Department. "Let's remember what is causing this trouble. It's not the United States. It's not the coalition forces that are there."

But he conceded that "it is clear we did not expect an insurgency that would be this strong."

The Defense Department announced this week that the death toll for U.S. military personnel in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was 975 and the number of wounded was approaching 7,000.

In other violence Friday, gunmen abducted four policemen and an Iranian after raiding their hotel room in the southern city of Basra.

The officers had been escorting the Iranian to the border under a deportation order, a senior Basra police official said on condition of anonymity. The official declined to provide details on why he was being deported, but said it was linked to the unrest in Najaf.


Associated Press writer Pamela Sampson in Paris contributed to this story.


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