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Kidnappers free journalist in Iraq

Shiite leaders prepare for handover of shrine in Najaf


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The release of a kidnapped journalist.

Muqtada al-Sadr's militia still controls the holy mosque in Najaf.
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NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- French-American journalist Micah Garen was released in Nasiriya and was in U.S. hands late Sunday after being kidnapped by insurgents in the southern Iraq city more than a week ago.

Garen, 36, was kidnapped August 13 along with his Iraqi translator, Amir Doshe, in a busy Nasiriya market. Doshe also was released, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

In an interview Sunday on the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera, Garen said he had been treated well during his captivity.

A group calling itself the Martyrs Brigade had threatened to kill him within 48 hours if Americans did not leave Najaf. (Full story)

The Mehdi Army -- fighters loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- has been battling Iraqi and U.S. forces around the city's Imam Ali Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, for two weeks.

Fighting continued outside the mosque Sunday amid negotiations between al-Sadr's followers and Shiite leaders to end the fighting and turn the holy site over to the Shiite religious authorities. Shiite leaders were to visit the site Sunday.

U.S. troops and aircraft struck Mehdi Army positions outside the mosque early Sunday, but fighting later in the day was sporadic, according to military officials and a CNN producer on the scene.

An al-Sadr spokesman said an airstrike about 11 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) damaged part of a wall around the mosque, killing several people and wounding others. The U.S. military had no comment on the report.

U.S. officials said their troops were backed by tanks and AC-130 gunships.

Iraq's Ministry of Health said 49 people were killed and 27 wounded in Najaf during the 24-hour period from 9 a.m. Saturday to the same time Sunday.

The health ministry did not say how many of the dead were civilians or Mehdi Army members, but U.S. military officials estimated 30 of them were Mehdi fighters.

The ministry reported that at least 56 Iraqis were killed and 50 wounded throughout the nation during the same period, including those in Najaf.

Among the other casualties were one fatality and 20 wounded in Baghdad, one dead and two wounded in Kut, and one wounded in Diwaniya. U.S. officials reported no American casualties.

Handover of shrine

Several hundred men have been staying inside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf awaiting the delegation of Shiite religious authorities who are expected to assume custody of the shrine.

Al-Sadr's representatives vowed to vacate the holy shrine as soon as possible after handing it over to Shiite leaders, but a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told al-Sadr's lieutenants that the leaders would not accept the keys to the holy shrine until fighting calms.

Representatives for al-Sistani, who is in London, England, for medical treatment, said he "instructed his office in Najaf" to make arrangements to have control of the mosque turned over to the Shiite religious authority.

The al-Sistani representatives have also been told to lock the mosque doors after the fighters leave.

There was no immediate word on the location of al-Sadr, who was at one time believed to be inside the mosque but later was said to be elsewhere. Al-Sadr did not deliver his usual weekly sermon in Kufa on Friday, sources said.

Garen: 'Very thankful'

State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said Garen was at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, had been given a quick medical examination and appeared to be in good condition.

In the Al-Jazeera interview, Garen said he had been taking pictures in Nasiriya with a small camera when he was accosted and taken prisoner.

"I had a camera, and people didn't understand what I was doing," he said.

Garen, who works for New York-based Four Corners Media, was working on a documentary about archaeological sites and antiquities endangered by the war.

The international media association Reporters Without Borders and other journalistic organizations appealed to al-Sadr to help win Garen's release.

Aous al-Khaffaji, al-Sadr's Nasiriya office manager, also appealed to Garen's captors to release him.

Garen, a French citizen who also carries a U.S. passport, said he was "very thankful for everyone who worked on ensuring my safety and my release," and he added that he was "grateful to the Sadr people."

A videotape broadcast Wednesday on Al-Jazeera showed Garen surrounded by armed, masked men. A video broadcast Friday showed Garen reading a statement.

"I'm an American journalist in Iraq and I've been asked to deliver a message from the Martyrs Brigade who want the American people to work on ending the bloodshed in Najaf. I'm held in captivity and I'm being treated well," Garen said in Friday video.

Other developments

  • Five Iraqis were killed in Anbar province, which includes the city of Falluja, the scene of much fighting between Iraqis and U.S.-led forces. Details about the casualties were not immediately available.
  • A car bomb Sunday morning targeting the deputy governor of Diyala province killed two of his bodyguards and wounded seven others -- including deputy governor Bassem al-Khadran -- according to officials from Iraq's interior and health ministries. The other wounded were four of al-Khadran's bodyguards and two civilians. (Full story) It was unclear if the attack was included in the Iraqi Ministry of Health death toll.
  • CNN's Kianne Sadeq in Najaf, Matthew Chance and Kevin Flower in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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