- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. troops battled Shi’ite militants in the center of Najaf yesterday, reigniting violence just as delegates in Baghdad opened a landmark conference intended to move the country toward democracy.

The collapse of a cease-fire in Najaf cast a shadow over the national conference in Baghdad, where 1,000 religious, tribal and political leaders from across Iraq gathered. Some of the delegates threatened to walk out unless the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi put an end to the fighting.

Insurgents fired a mortar barrage apparently aimed at Baghdad’s green zone, where the gathering was taking place. They instead hit a commuter bus station, killing two persons and wounding 17 others, according to the Health Ministry.

Also in Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier hours before the conference began. At least 931 U.S. service members have died in Iraq since March 2003.

In Fallujah, west of Baghdad, U.S. warplanes bombed three neighborhoods yesterday afternoon, killing five civilians and wounding six others, said Dr. Adil Khamis of Fallujah General Hospital.

The national conference aims to give a broad range of Iraqis a voice in the political process and increase the legitimacy of Mr. Allawi’s interim government, which is deeply dependent on American troops and money even after the end of the U.S. occupation.

But Mr. Allawi’s attempts to show he is in control have been undermined by the uprising in Najaf by militiamen loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The country’s Shi’ite majority has been angered at the sight of U.S. troops firing near some of their holiest sites — and many have blamed the Iraqi government.

The government pulled out of negotiations on Saturday, and U.S. armored troop carriers and tanks yesterday moved back into the center of Najaf, where the Mahdi’s Army militia has been in control of the Old City.

Dozens of explosions from tank shells and mortars as well as constant small arms fire shook Najaf’s vast cemetery, where Mahdi’s Army fighters have been battling U.S. troops since Aug. 5.

An explosion, thought to be from a tank round, landed near the outer wall of the compound housing the revered Imam Ali Shrine, the militants’ informal headquarters and Iraq’s holiest Shi’ite site, said al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany.

“The shrine was not hit,” he said.

Any damage to the shrine would enrage Shi’ites further.

Cabinet minister Waeil Abdel-Latif warned of a new offensive unless the militants drop their weapons, get out of the city and transform themselves into a political party.

“We shall give the peaceful way a chance … and after that, we shall take another position,” he said.

Police ordered all journalists to leave Najaf or face arrest, meaning that the only coverage from the city would be provided by reporters embedded with the U.S. military.

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

During the negotiations to end the fighting, 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, aides said.

But on Saturday, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie announced that the talks had been making no progress and left Najaf. Al-Sadr aides accused Mr. Allawi of breaking off negotiations just as they were nearing an agreement.

Mr. Abdel-Latif said foreign fighters were among the militants captured in Najaf — a repeated government claim — and played a video that showed interviews with Iranian, Egyptian and Jordanian fighters and boxes of weapons, reportedly from Iran.

In other violence yesterday, a Ukrainian patrol commander, Capt. Yuriy Ivanov, was killed in a land-mine explosion near Suwayrah, 25 miles south of Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Artur Domanski, a Polish military spokesman.

Also, a Dutch military policeman was killed and five others were seriously wounded during violence Saturday in the southern city of Rumaythah, the Dutch Defense Ministry said yesterday.

In a separate incident in Rumaythah, al-Sadr militants fought with police in a battle that killed two persons, including one policeman, said Mohammed al-Kharasani, a hospital official.

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