- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Negotiations to end the fighting in Najaf broke down yesterday, threatening to spark a resurgence of the fierce clashes between Shi’ite militants and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force that have plagued this holy city for more than a week.

The collapse of talks cast a pall on Iraq’s national conference, which starts today, gathering 1,300 delegates from across the country in what is considered a vital step toward establishing democracy.

The chief government negotiator said he decided to quit the talks in Najaf after three fruitless days, but representatives of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said a deal almost had been reached before Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a Shi’ite, objected to its terms.

“It is a conspiracy to commit a big massacre,” Sheik al-Sadr’s top negotiator, Sheik Ali Smeisim, told the Arab television station Al Jazeera.

Soon after the talks broke down, a massive Army and Marine force of tanks, Humvees and armored vehicles lined up inside a U.S. military base in Najaf for an assault on the militants, which Mr. Allawi reportedly delayed.

“We were sitting here waiting for authorization to go clear the militia. We never got that authorization,” said Marine Maj. David Holahan. “We’ll continue operations as the prime minister … sees fit.”

U.S. forces called a halt to a major offensive in the city on Friday to give negotiations a chance. The fighting in Najaf has angered many among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, complicating a difficult situation for Mr. Allawi’s U.S.-supported government, which has been keen to show that it is in control.

The chairman of the national conference, Fuad Masoum, insisted that the violence would not affect the three-day gathering.

“This is a perfect time for the conference to discuss the current problems and find solutions,” he said.

About 10,000 demonstrators from as far away as Baghdad arrived in Najaf yesterday to show solidarity with the militants and act as human shields to protect the city and the Imam Ali shrine, where fighters from Mahdi’s Army, the cleric’s militia, have taken refuge since the fighting started Aug. 5.

As others predicted that fighting would resume, coalition officials reiterated yesterday that they would not enter the shrine.

“It is not our intention to go anywhere near the holy sites. We understand their significance to the Shia, and we respect the Shia,” said Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham, deputy commanding general of the Multinational Corps. “The irreverence … is [Sheik al-Sadr’s] and not ours.”

During the negotiations, Sheik al-Sadr demanded a U.S. withdrawal from Najaf, the freeing of all Mahdi’s Army fighters in detention and amnesty for all the fighters in exchange for disarming his followers and pulling them out of the shrine and Najaf’s old city, where they have taken refuge, aides said.

After days of discussion — and just hours after Najaf’s governor said he thought a breakthrough was imminent — Iraq’s national security adviser, Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie, announced that the talks were over.

“Our goal was to spare blood, preserve security and for the militias to put down their weapons,” he said. “We have been talking and discussing these matters for three days but reached no positive conclusion,” he said. “After three days, my government thought there was no use in continuing.”

Mr. al-Rubaie said he was leaving Najaf but would return for any new talks.

However, Qais al-Khazali, Sheik al-Sadr’s spokesman in Najaf, said a deal had been reached, and that Sheik al-Sadr, who did not attend the talks, had signed it, when “we were surprised that they got instructions from Dr. Allawi to leave.”

After nearly two days of quiet during the negotiations, Mr. al-Khazali predicted an impending government offensive and appealed to “Arab and Islamic countries to firmly stand up against this massacre.”

The U.S. military estimates that hundreds of insurgents have been killed since the clashes broke out Aug. 5, but the militants dispute the figure. Six Americans and about 20 Iraqi officers have been killed, it said.

Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Nakib yesterday announced a daytime curfew for the center of Baghdad to start today as part of efforts to protect the national conference, a major target for insurgents waging an unrelenting campaign of car bombings, mortar attacks, kidnappings and other violence.

The conference, which will be held in the fortified enclave that houses government buildings and the U.S. Embassy, will help elect a 100-member national assembly that is to shepherd the country to its first democratic elections scheduled for the end of January.

Beset by problems even before its start, the conference was to have been held by the end of July by law but was delayed more than two weeks in an effort to increase participation.

Sheik al-Sadr’s followers and the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni religious group with links to insurgents, have said they would boycott the unprecedented gathering. Still, 70 groups have agreed to participate, said Mr. Masoum, the conference chairman.

Intense clashes between Sheik al-Sadr’s militia and Iraqi police in the city of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, killed about 40 militants and three police, Capt. Hadi Hassan, a police spokesman, said yesterday. Fighting between the militia and U.S. forces also was reported in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City.

Elsewhere, U.S. warplanes bombed the largely Sunni city of Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, after a series of clashes there. The U.S. military said about 50 militants were killed.

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