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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 May, 2004, 01:16 GMT 02:16 UK
Karbala calm as militia withdraws
Karbala street
The area surrounding the shrine has been left in ruins
Calm has returned to the Iraqi city of Karbala, after fighters loyal to the radical Shia cleric, Moqtada Sadr, withdrew from the centre.

The holy Iraqi city has seen heavy fighting between the militia and coalition forces over the past month.

Mr Sadr said his forces would withdraw only if US-led troops led first, but the Americans say they have merely moved their troops, not pulled out.

There have been reports of US patrols re-entering some central districts.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, five people were killed in a suicide car bomb explosion outside the house of a deputy interior minister.

Several people, including Deputy Minister Abdul-Jabbar Youssef al-Sheikhli, was among those injured in the blast.

He received head and chest injuries, but is in a stable condition, a ministry official said.

Lull in fighting

In Karbala the streets are reported to be quiet, with little sign of the fighters.

A senior member of Mr Sadr's Mehdi Army, Ali al-Kazali, told the AFP news agency that the fighters had laid down their arms, following weeks of efforts by Iraqi tribal and religious leaders to negotiate a truce with the militia.

The US-led coalition has refused to negotiate directly with Mr Sadr, who is wanted in connection with the murder of a rival Shia cleric last year.

Brig Gen Mark Kimmit denied any reports of a truce.

He repeated that the confrontation could only be resolved peacefully if Mr Sadr handed himself in and disbanded his army.

Iraq map

On Friday more than 2,000 Iraqis demonstrated demanding that Mr Sadr's men leave the city.

And on Tuesday Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, said all armed forces should be withdrawn from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Karbala, which is 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of Baghdad, is home to the shrine of Imam Hussein - one of the holiest places for the world's Shia Muslims.

The area next to the shrine is in ruins after weeks of clashes with the US-led forces.

Blast condemned

The blast in Baghdad on Saturday killed four security guards and a local woman. Some members of Mr Sheikhli's family were also reported injured.

A US spokesman said it was unclear if the attack in the east of the city - near the former headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service and an American military base - was carried out by a suicide bomber.

A group headed by al-Qaeda figure Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attack on an Islamic website, Reuters news agency says.

An injured man is stretchered away
Saturday's blast was the latest in a spate of bombings

The head of the US-appointed Iraq Governing Council, Ezzedine Salim, died in a car bomb last week.

Like Mr Salim, the injured deputy interior minister is a member of the Shia Dawa party.

The Iraqi Interior Minister, Samir Shaker Mahmoud al-Sumeidi visited the scene of the blast and condemned it as a "terrible crime".

"It would seem that the criminals do not want the law to prevail or the security men to implement it," he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Saturday's blast destroyed several cars and left the street strewn with debris.

The BBC's Juliet Dunlop
"In Karbala there are reports of a shaky truce"

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