NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — Gunmen assassinated an Iranian diplomat
in Baghdad yesterday just as Iran, with tacit U.S. approval,
attempted to mediate with a radical Shiite cleric defying American
forces in this southern Iraqi city.

The slaying of diplomat Khalil Naimi, shot in the head by
unknown gunmen while he drove near his embassy, cast a shadow over
yesterday’s unusual negotiating mission to Najaf by the envoy
from neighboring Iran, which fought an eight-year war with Iraq in
the 1980s and does not have diplomatic relations with
Washington.

Iranian Embassy officials were investigating whether there was a
link between the assassination and the envoy’s visit. Naimi
was not a member of the Iranian negotiating team.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said
“it’s probably premature to draw any conclusions about
whether it reflects anything about the role that Iran has played
one way or the other in Iraq.”

The Iranian effort to mediate with anti-American cleric Muqtada
al-Sadr was arranged by Britain and appeared to have the approval
of the United States, reflecting an eagerness to find a solution
that would avert a U.S. assault on Najaf — the holiest Shiite
city — aimed at capturing al-Sadr.

But it was not clear whether al-Sadr would agree to meet with
Iranian envoy Hossein Sadeghi.

Al-Sadr was accepting mediation only by an Iraqi political party
picked by Iraq’s top clerics, said al-Sadr aide Sheik Qays
al-Khaz’ali.

Shiite Governing Council member Ibrahim al-Jaafari said he saw
“flexibility from al-Sadr’s side” and called on
the Americans to show “similar flexibility.”

Meanwhile, kidnappers freed three Japanese hostages whom they
had threatened to kill unless Japan withdrew its troops from
Iraq.

At least 19 foreigners remained unaccounted for following a wave
of abductions that accompanied the worst violence Iraq has seen
since U.S. forces invaded Iraq. An Italian hostage was killed by
gunmen who threatened to kill three other Italian captives.

Iraq’s top U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, was
involved in “multiple channels” to try to negotiate an
end to the standoff in the south and in the central city of
Fallujah, said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff.

Myers warned there is a limit to how long the Marines can put
off a resumption of offensive operations in Fallujah. “At
some point somebody has to make a decision on what we’re
going to do, and we certainly can’t rule out the use of force
there again,” he told a news conference.

After relative peace during the day, gunfire and explosions
resumed after sundown yesterday — as they have nightly as
Sunni insurgents and Marines exchange fire over relatively fixed
positions.

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