Wednesday, April 21, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — Tribal leaders in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf yesterday called on an anti-American cleric’s militia to end its standoff with U.S. troops.

The statement, signed by 25 tribal leaders, was the first direct call by residents of Najaf for Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army to put down its weapons.

“To all armed people in the holy city of Najaf: After the failure of peaceful efforts and increasing tension in the city, we ask you in the name of Islam to preserve the holiness of the city,” the one-page statement said.

“We call upon you to leave matters to Iraqi officials and legitimate authorities so that the blood of innocent people is not shed,” it said. “We call on you to take your responsibilities in front of God and in front of society.”

Meanwhile, security efforts in Fallujah, a Sunni town that also has seen fierce anticoalition violence ran into trouble yesterday as guerrillas mounted a heavy attack on Marines in a battle that killed 20 insurgents.

A shaky truce in Fallujah negotiated Monday appeared to be on the verge of collapse, and Marines said almost all the weapons turned in so far in a crucial disarmament accord were in such bad shape that they were already useless.

In response, Marines halted the return of some of the 70,000 residents — more than a third of Fallujah’s population — who fled during this month’s bloody fighting. Crowds massed behind concertina wire, with women and crying children pressing forward demanding to be let in. Nearby trucks were stacked high with the families’ belongings.

The Agence France-Presse news service reported that at least three U.S. Marines also were wounded in the fighting. The two-hour battle started early in the morning, when between 20 and 30 fighters fired on the Marines with guns and rocket-propelled grenades in northwestern Fallujah, the U.S.-led coalition said.

Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army launched a bloody uprising on April 4 against U.S.-led coalition troops in Baghdad and cities across the south of Iraq. The cleric is wanted in the killing of a rival cleric who was stabbed to death shortly after returning to Najaf from exile in April last year.

After the uprising, the cleric took refuge in his office across the street from the Shi’ites’ holiest site, the shrine of Imam Ali. Sheik al-Sadr’s armed followers could be seen wandering in the city.

U.S. troops are on the outskirts of Najaf with standing orders to capture or kill Sheik al-Sadr, although commanders have said they have no intention of entering the city in the near future.

Abdul-Karim al-Oneizi, an official with the Islamic Dawa Party-Iraq Organization, is mediating between Sheik al-Sadr and U.S. forces. He said yesterday there had been a “breakthrough in negotiation, and we might reach fruitful results.”

Mr. al-Oneizi, who made his comments before meeting Sheik al-Sadr, refused to give further details.

In Fallujah, about 10 families re-entered the city in the morning before Marines announced to about 600 Iraqis waiting at the checkpoint that no more would be allowed in.

U.S. officials say the handover of heavy weapons is vital and have warned that if the deal falls through, the Marines might launch a major assault on Sunni insurgents. That would likely mean a resumption of heavy fighting.

The battle for the city has killed at least seven Marines and more than 600 Iraqis, mostly civilians, according to city hospital officials.

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