Saturday, August 14, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. forces suspended a major offensive against militants in Najaf yesterday, and aides to Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr told Iraqi negotiators that the radical Shi’ite cleric was prepared to disarm his followers in exchange for a list of demands including an American withdrawal from the holy city and amnesty for all his fighters.

The negotiations to end nine days of clashes in Najaf came as Mahdi’s Army militia appeared to stop most attacks in the city.

Before the pause in the fighting, aides to the cleric said Sheik al-Sadr was slightly injured early yesterday, suffering shrapnel wounds to the face, chest and shoulder as he met with followers near the revered Imam Ali mosque, where many of the militants were hiding.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he could not confirm that Sheik al-Sadr was wounded.

U.S. troops and Iraqi officials want to ensure that any new truce would eliminate the flaws of the previous agreements, including one that ended a two-month uprising in early June. Sheik al-Sadr’s militia repeatedly violated that cease-fire, shooting at police, burying caches of weapons in Najaf’s vast cemetery and using the time to regroup, said U.S. officials and witnesses.

Mr. Powell said he hoped the insurgent leader would respond “in due course” to charges placed against him by Iraqi authorities. An Iraqi judge has released an arrest warrant for Sheik al-Sadr in connection with the death of a moderate Shi’ite leader, Abdul Majid al-Khoel, in April 2003, two days after the fall of Baghdad. Sheik al-Sadr denies any role in the murder.

The secretary of state denounced Sheik al-Sadr and his militia as outlaws and said U.S. forces were “squeezing” Najaf in an effort to end the fighting.

U.S. officials were not involved in yesterday’s talks, Iraqi officials said. Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie and Defense Minister Hazem Shalan were among the officials negotiating with Sheik al-Sadr’s aides.

One of the cleric’s assistants, Ahmed al-Shaibany, described the talks as “serious and positive, but difficult.”

Another, Sheik Ali Smeisim, said Sheik al-Sadr wanted a U.S. withdrawal from Najaf, the freeing of all fighters in detention and an amnesty for them, among other demands, in exchange for his disarming his followers and ending the fighting.

Despite the talks, Sheik al-Sadr lashed out at the United States, which he said was intent on “occupying the whole world.” The fiery sermon was read on his behalf during Friday prayers at the Kufa Mosque near Najaf.

“The presence of occupation in Iraq has made our country an unbearable hell,” he said, calling on Iraqis to rebel, “because I will not allow another Saddam-like government again.”

Najaf, which had rattled with explosions and gunfire since Aug. 5, was quiet by yesterday afternoon. U.S. tanks were seen pulling back from some streets, and no U.S. or Iraqi forces were visible in the city center. The U.S. military said it was maintaining a loose cordon around the Old City, the cemetery and the Imam Ali shrine.

The Americans had announced the start of a major offensive to rout the insurgents Thursday, and the fighting in the city had threatened to infuriate Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

“We do not in any way wish to get involved with the mosque,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s a very holy place for all Shi’a.”

The U.S. military said it suspended offensive operations at 7 a.m. yesterday because of the truce talks.

“We are allowed to engage the enemy only in self-defense and long enough to break contact,” said U.S. Maj. Bob Pizzitola. “That was a blanket order for everybody.

“Hopefully, the talks will go well and everything will be resolved peacefully,” he said.

Despite the tacit cease-fire, Iraqis held demonstrations yesterday in support of Sheik al-Sadr in cities across the country. In Baghdad, thousands of protesters, including some police officers, gathered outside the fortified enclave housing the U.S. Embassy and government offices and prayed in the street.

Meanwhile, a series of air strikes yesterday in the volatile Sunni city of Fallujah killed eight persons and wounded 16 others, said Abdel Wahab Ahmed from Fallujah hospital.

The U.S. military did not comment immediately, but U.S. forces repeatedly have hit the militant stronghold 40 miles west of Baghdad with air strikes.

Also yesterday, the new U.N. envoy to Iraq arrived in Baghdad to set up the international body’s first official presence here since a series of deadly bombings forced it out last year.

Ashraf Jehangir Qazi’s primary task is to help Iraqis establish a constitutionally elected government by Dec. 31, 2005.

The violence in Najaf has spread to other Shi’ite communities in Iraq.

In the southern city of Basra, militants briefly kidnapped British journalist James Brandon and threatened to kill him if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf. He was freed after Sheik al-Sadr’s aides condemned the kidnapping.

Before Thursday, the U.S. military has estimated that hundreds of insurgents had been killed in the Najaf fighting since it began last week, but the militants dispute the figure. Six Americans have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers, it said.

• AP writer Abdul Hussein al-Obeidi contributed to this report.

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