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Iraqi Officials Still Hopeful About Reaching Peace Settlement Soon

By Edward Wong

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD, Iraq

Iraqi officials involved in talks aimed at quelling a Shiite insurrection said Thursday they hoped a peaceful settlement could be reached as soon as Friday, though there was still disagreement between the parties on what to do about the thousands-strong militia behind the uprising.

In the town of Kufa, the home of Muqtada al-Sadr, spiritual leader of the Mahdi militia, men wearing black-and-white headdresses and carrying AK-47s stood next to freshly dug foxholes alongside the road. In Najaf, where al-Sadr has sought refuge and which is surrounded by 2,500 U.S. soldiers, the militiamen blocked side alleys and watched passing cars.

Fighting reportedly flared between Marines and insurgents in Fallujah on Thursday, despite a cease-fire called to give negotiators on both sides time to reach a solution.

In a visit to Baghdad on Thursday, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, depicted the insurrection and fighting that has risen over nearly a two-week period as a sign of progress.

“I would characterize what we’re seeing right now as a -- as more a symptom of the success that we’re having here in Iraq,” he said in a news conference, explaining that the violence indicated there was something to fight against -- U.S. progress in building up Iraq.

Even as an Iranian delegation traveled from Baghdad to Najaf at the request of the British government to watch over or perhaps take part in negotiations, an Iranian diplomat was shot dead while driving to the Iranian Embassy in central Baghdad.

The diplomat, Khalil Naimi, was attacked in the early afternoon by people who drove up alongside his gray Mitsubishi sedan just around the corner from the embassy and riddled it with about a dozen bullets, an Iraqi police guard, Mokdam al-Azawi, said.