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Russian Ambassador Meets Anti-U.S. Cleric

June 13, 2005

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) _ Russia’s ambassador to Iraq flew to this southern city Monday for talks with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the embassy said.

Ambassador Vladimir Chamov was making the first visit by a Russian envoy to al-Sadr’s office since the U.S.-led war started in Iraq two years ago, embassy protocol chief Ivan Zhurba said.

Zhurba had no details on the purpose of the talks.

Russia opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq and President Vladimir Putin has said no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq _ Washington’s major justification for launching the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Al-Sadr, who opposes the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, has recently taken on a higher public profile after emerging from months of hiding following clashes last year between U.S. troops and his militiamen in Baghdad’s impoverished Sadr City and Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.

The talks come amid a raging insurgency that has killed more than 940 people since Iraq’s new Shiite-led government was announced April 28.

Sheik Jalil al-Nouri, an al-Sadr aide in Najaf, confirmed the talks had started and that a delegation of Sunni tribal leaders from the volatile Anbar province towns of Ramadi and Fallujah were expected to meet with al-Sadr later.

``The meeting was held to develop the relationship between Russia and Muqtada al-Sadr because the al-Sadr movement is very influential and well known in Iraq,″ al-Nouri said, without providing further details.

He added that the meeting had nothing to do with al-Sadr’s talks with the Anbar delegation.

The fiery cleric has been negotiating between Shiite and Sunni groups who have accused each other of killing clerics from each community.

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