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In brief: Back in Iraq, al-Sadr tells followers to shun violence

NAJAF, Iraq – In a triumphal return after more than three years in Iran, militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers Saturday to abandon the use of violence and channel their efforts into the new Iraqi government, while demanding an end to U.S. influence in Iraq.

“We do not kill Iraqis. We do not raise our hand to kill an Iraqi man,” he told thousands of flag-waving men who packed the street outside his home in this city of shrines sacred to Iraqi Shiites. Only those authorized should carry weapons, and his followers shouldn’t use violence against foreigners or Iraqis, he said. And he called for only “cultural” and “intellectual” resistance against what he described as the U.S. “occupation.”

Three years ago, al-Sadr’s followers constituted the much-feared Jaish al Mahdi militia, which controlled the oil-producing city of Basra, a large part of Baghdad, and parts of other predominantly Shiite cities in southern Iraq. They were ousted only after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki mounted a major military operation in Basra and in Baghdad, with U.S. support, in spring 2008.

Al-Sadr’s half hour speech in his hometown was his first formal appearance here since he left for Iran in 2007.

French hostages found dead after rescue attempt

PARIS – Two French hostages kidnapped in the Niger capital were killed by their captors despite a rescue attempt by French forces, President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement Saturday.

The hostages were found dead at the Niger-Mali border after French troops there clashed with the kidnappers, killing several of them, a statement from Defense Minister Alain Juppe said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the killings as a “cowardly and barbaric act.”

The two French victims, who have not been identified, were kidnapped by four armed men while dining at a restaurant Friday night in the Niger capital, Niamey.

Staff at the main hospital in Niamey confirmed that the bodies of the two Frenchmen had arrived and were being stored in the morgue there.

It was not immediately clear when the clash to free the two French hostages occurred. No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and it was not immediately clear whether the al-Qaida offshoot was responsible.