IRAQ Officials plan help for Najaf, Sadr City

A U.S. soldier died in a roadside bomb attack, and two were hurt.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. and Iraqi officials discussed ways today to step up aid to Najaf and a war-battered neighborhood in Baghdad after rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to end their uprising.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told tribal leaders from Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City slum -- scene of fierce clashes between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's militia -- that the government had allocated $115 million for projects there to improve public services including water, electricity and sewage.
"The resumption and the stability of life in your city and in the whole of Iraq is a very important issue," Allawi said.
Efforts to rebuild
Meanwhile, James Jeffrey, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, met with Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi in the holy city of Najaf to assess the "immediate needs of the city" and examine ways to rebuild it. Parts of Najaf, particularly around the Old City, were heavily damaged during three weeks of fighting.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have repeatedly complained that sabotage, fighting and assassinations of government officials across the country have badly hampered efforts to rebuild the country after years of war and crushing international sanctions.
Today, unidentified gunmen shot dead Ibrahim Ismael, the head of the education department in the northern city of Kirkuk, said police Col. Sarhat Qadir. Three of Ismael's bodyguards were wounded and were being treated at a local hospital.
Al-Sadr's aides said Monday the cleric had called for his fighters to stop attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and was considering joining the political process.
Al-Sadr has backed off other commitments in the past, but a truce would be a major victory for Allawi by removing a serious insurgency and potentially bringing many of the Shiite cleric's followers into the effort to build a peaceful democracy.
Vital oil exports
Also Monday, there were conflicting reports on Iraq's vital oil exports. Iraqi oil officials and the governor of Basra state said exports were shut down after a rash of pipeline attacks. However, world oil prices decreased as traders said other reports suggested some oil was still flowing. At the New York Mercantile Exchange, October contracts for light sweet crude fell 90 cents a barrel to $42.28 -- well below peaks above $48 a barrel in mid-August.
Bomb attack on U.S.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said a roadside bomb attack on a U.S. military convoy just outside Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, killed a U.S. soldier and wounded two. A total of 974 U.S. service members have died since military operations began in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
Sheik Ali Smeisim, a political adviser to al-Sadr, announced the cease-fire decision in Najaf, calling on the cleric's al-Mahdi Army militiamen to "stop firing until the announcement of the political program adopted by the Sadrist movement."
He also urged U.S. and Iraqi troops to move out of the center of Iraqi cities, though that did not appear to be a condition for the unilateral cease-fire. Asked if the truce would take effect immediately, Smeisim said, "I hope so."
A peace deal mediated by Iraq's top Shiite religious leader ended the fighting in Najaf last week, but clashes have continued elsewhere. Al-Sadr's aides and Iraqi government officials met in Baghdad on Monday to try to negotiate an end to violence that has wracked the capital's Sadr City slum.
French crisis
Meanwhile, the French government prepared for crisis talks today to save the lives of two journalists held hostage in Iraq, while aides to al-Sadr called for the release of the reporters as a deadline set by their kidnappers neared.
Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were shown on a video released by Al-Jazeera television late Monday pleading with President Jacques Chirac to save their lives by giving in to militants' demands to rescind a ban on head scarves in French schools.
France has ruled out lifting the ban, and Muslim leaders in France and abroad have criticized the kidnapping of the journalists.
"We believe such acts defame Islam and Muslims in general," Ali al-Yasiri, an al-Sadr representative in Baghdad, said today. "To fight in a battlefield is OK, but to kill a civilian or journalist is blasphemy."
"I call upon the kidnappers to immediately release the French journalists," another al-Sadr official, Sheikh Youssef Al-Nassiri, told Al-Jazeera.
Al-Sadr commands strong support among poor Iraqi Shiites and helped broker the Aug. 22 release of U.S. journalist Micah Garen after nine days in the hands of Shiite militiamen. But al-Sadr has little influence with Sunni Muslims, and the group that has said it seized the French reporters, The Islamic Army of Iraq, is believed to be a Sunni group.
Demand for freedom
The European Parliament called for the immediate release of the two Frenchmen, and more than 160 EU lawmakers had signed a petition by this morning demanding their freedom.
In a video broadcast Saturday, the group gave the French government 48 hours to overturn the ban, but mentioned no threat against the men's lives. A militant group with a similar name was believed to have killed an Italian free-lance journalist last week after Italy's government rejected a demand that it withdraw its 3,000 soldiers in Iraq.

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