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U.S. officials and Iraqis open direct negotiations in Fallujah

Also, more kidnappings reported

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FALLUJAH, Iraq — U.S. military and civilian officials met Friday with leaders from Fallujah, the first known direct negotiations involving Americans since the siege of the city began April 5. Nine civilians died in violence elsewhere in Iraq.

Also, the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera broadcast video showing a U.S. soldier, Pfc. Keith M. Maupin, 20, in the custody of five masked gunmen. Maupin, of Batavia, Ohio, was reported missing after an attack on a convoy a week ago.

In the south, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq warned the Americans not to enter the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. A U.S. commander said there were no such plans.

The military said U.S. soldiers fought back after they were attacked near Kufa, which neighbors the holy city of Najaf. Some 2,500 U.S. soldiers are deployed outside Najaf to kill or capture radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and dismantle his al-Mahdi Army militia.

Large explosions were seen by the river in a sparsely populated area on the edge of Kufa. Five civilians caught in the crossfire were killed and 14 wounded, hospital officials said.

During the talks in Fallujah, the United States agreed to move its soldiers so residents would have direct access to the city's main hospital. Both sides agreed to continue dialogue on Saturday, said Ambassador Richard Jones, the civilian head of the U.S. delegation.

Until Friday, U.S.-allied Iraqi leaders have been holding talks with city representatives trying to find an end to the violence.

"We have agreed as a sign of good faith to continue the talks tomorrow morning," said Jones, the chief political adviser to L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq. He added that a military team was being sent to survey the situation at the hospital and disinfect the building.

On another front, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, warned of a strong Shiite response if U.S. forces enter the holy cities of Najaf or Karbala to capture al-Sadr.

The two cities are a "red line," Mahdi al-Karbala'i, al-Sistani's representative in Karbala, said during a sermon. "We are calling for peaceful solutions, but if the coalition forces are to cross the red line, then will take a different stronger position."

Al-Sistani, a moderate who has opposed anti-U.S. violence, holds enormous influence among Iraq's Shiite majority.

Maj. Gen. John Sattler, director of operations for the U.S. Central Command, said there were no plans to go into the city.

"We're not planning at this time to move any offensive operations into an Najaf," Sattler said. "Sadr is there, we know where he is, but right now we're letting him to continue to marginalize himself and we're not focusing any combat power or combat operations into Najaf."

U.S. commanders said they expect to rotate some of the troops surrounding Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, a sign that imminent combat was not expected.

Iranian envoy Hossein Sadeghi was in Najaf Friday, but representatives of Muqtada al-Sadr said the envoy had no meetings with the anti-American cleric. Sadeghi's visit 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 the city.

Meanwhile, the number of foreigners missing in Iraq rose after a man from the United Arab Emirates was abducted Thursday from his hotel in the southern city of Basra by kidnappers disguised as policemen. A Danish businessman was believed kidnapped earlier in the week.

Two U.S. soldiers and seven U.S. civilian contractors have been missing in Iraq since their convoy was attacked April 9 outside Baghdad.

Three Czech reporters missing since Sunday were released by their kidnappers. A Syrian-born Canadian was also freed.

Despite the talks in Fallujah, fighting continued in the city Friday. A U.S. F-16 warplane dropped a 2,000-pound bomb in northern Fallujah, destroying a building where gunmen had been seen, Marines said. The giant blast sent up a huge spray of dirt and smoke that clouded an entire neighborhood.

Also Friday, an Arab from the Persian Gulf was snatched from his hotel by gunmen disguised as police in the southern city of Basra on Thursday night, the hotel owner and Iraqi police official Col. Khalaf al-Maliki said.

The victim was carrying a passport from the United Arab Emirates that had U.S. travel stamps in it, leading to earlier incorrect reports that he was American, al-Maliki said. The hotel owner, who refused to be named, said gunmen broke into the hotel and pulled out the man.

The Danish man was in Iraq to start up a company that deals with sewage projects, according to Denmark television station DR-1. He was missing after his car was stopped Tuesday on a highway near Tadji, 20 miles north of Baghdad.

Kidnappers have released a Chinese citizen who was abducted Wednesday, said Muthanna Harith, a member of the Islamic Clerics Committee, which earlier had worked to win the freedom of three Japanese hostages.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the man was an employee of a Chinese company and was traveling from Jordan to Iraq when his car was stopped by Iraqis at a checkpoint.

At least 21 foreigners have been abducted in the past week in a wave of kidnappings. The most occurred on roads west and south of Baghdad, where gunmen have run rampant the past week, attacking convoys and battling U.S. troops.

Gunmen on Thursday assassinated an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad. Iranian Embassy officials were investigating whether the assassination was linked to the Iranian envoy's visit. Diplomat Khalil Naimi was not a member of the Iranian negotiating team.

Shiite Governing Council member Ibrahim al-Jaafari said he saw "flexibility from al-Sadr's side" and urged Americans to show "similar flexibility."

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 Fallujah, said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But Myers warned there was a limit as to how long the Marines can wait. "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 said.

A U.S. soldier was killed Wednesday in Samarra, north of Fallujah — raising to 88 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in April, the deadliest month for the Americans in Iraq.

U.S. commanders have vowed to "kill or capture" al-Sadr, but have limited their actions to small skirmishes on the outskirts of the city.

Maj. Neal O'Brien said the units at Najaf "will not complete this operation" and will likely be replaced by other troops — a rotation that suggests that an assault on the city is not imminent.

Sadeghi met with current Governing Council president Massoud Barzani on Wednesday and traveled to Najaf for talks on Thursday.

Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite and has enormous influence with the Shiite majority in Iraq.

Although the United States and Iran are bitter enemies, the political process in Iraq is likely to end with Shiites as the dominant power.

Tehran and Washington have been communicating behind the scenes on how to restore order in Iraq, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Wednesday, although he said they have been "going nowhere."

Both countries want to avoid a U.S. attack on Najaf, site of the holiest Shiite site — the Imam Ali Shrine, near the office where al-Sadr is located, surrounded by armed gunmen.

Negotiations appeared focused on dissolving al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army militia — a demand he has refused — and how to deal with al-Sadr himself. He has been charged with involvement in the assassination last year of a rival Shiite cleric.