- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — A radical Iraqi cleric leading a Shi’ite uprising agreed yesterday to disarm his militia and leave one of the country’s holiest Islamic shrines in the southern city of Najaf after warnings of an onslaught by government forces.

But sporadic fighting continued into the night in Najaf, and the U.S. military said it had killed more than 50 fighters loyal to the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, when they advanced into a Baghdad suburb that is one of his power bases.

Sheik al-Sadr, whose rebellion poses a major challenge to Iraqi stability, agreed to the Najaf pullout hours after the interim government had threatened to storm the Imam Ali mosque to teach his Mahdi’s Army militia “a lesson they will never forget.”

Meanwhile, in a major political development, delegates to a conference in Baghdad chose an interim national assembly.

The Baghdad conference announced members of the new assembly to oversee the interim government. A list of 81 government-backed candidates was chosen after four days of deliberations. The rest were made up of members of Iraq’s defunct Governing Council.

A planned vote to affirm the slate of 81 candidates was called off at the last minute, and the conference organizers simply affirmed the group — to the dismay of many of those who were not included in the council.

The meeting was prolonged for a day by disputes over Najaf and wrangling over the makeup of the council.

Apart from Sheik al-Sadr leaving the shrine, the delegates demanded his men lay down their weapons and the cleric and his men disavow violence and participate in elections set for January.

Spokesmen for Sheik al-Sadr said he had agreed to accept their demands to resolve the crisis. A delegation from the Baghdad talks flew to Najaf on Tuesday to try to broker a deal with Sheik al-Sadr, but he refused to meet them.

Tensions, however, remained high after dark in the holy city where fighting has raged for two weeks and killed hundreds.

Sheik al-Sadr, who only a few days ago had vowed to fight to the death, said his forces would disarm and leave only after U.S. Marines encircling the city agreed to a truce.

Iraq’s Defense Ministry countered by ordering them to lay down their weapons and leave immediately, abandoning their rebellion in Najaf and at least seven other cities. Only then would they be granted an amnesty.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told Fox News on the deal: “I don’t think we can trust al-Sadr. I think we have to see action, not just words. We’ve seen many, many times al-Sadr assume or say that he’s going to accept certain terms, and then it turns out not really to be the case.”

A U.S. officer said American forces, backed by tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, advanced about 1.5 miles into Baghdad’s Sadr City, a predominantly Shi’ite slum of 2 million residents, and was met with sporadic resistance.

A U.S. officer said soldiers killed “slightly over” 50 Iraqis identified as firing upon the advancing forces in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. There was no immediate independent confirmation of the death toll.

In Najaf, intermittent exchanges of artillery and mortar and machine-gun fire continued well into the night, hours after Sheik al-Sadr’s dramatic announcement that he was prepared to withdraw.

“Sayyed Muqtada and his fighters are ready to throw down their weapons and leave for the sake of Iraq,” said Ali al-Yassiri, Sheik al-Sadr’s political liaison officer.

Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters have holed up in the shrine in the heart of the southern city, hoping U.S. and Iraqi forces will not dare to attack the holiest site for Iraq’s majority Shi’ites.

Jalil al-Shumari, a delegate at the Baghdad meeting, read a letter from Sheik al-Sadr’s office announcing that the cleric had backed down.

“The agreement from al-Sadr came after many calls from Iraqi tribes, parties and citizens who pressured him hard,” he said.

Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, about six hours earlier, had said an assault was imminent on the golden-domed mosque.

U.S. Marines and soldiers have been doing most of the fighting in Najaf, but Mr. Shaalan said that Iraqi forces had been training to storm the shrine complex and that U.S. forces would not enter the sacred site.

The director of Najaf’s main hospital, Falah al-Muhana, said 29 persons had been brought in dead or wounded in the clashes yesterday, but there were no more precise figures. U.S. casualties are treated at their own bases.

Elsewhere in Iraq, a U.S. Marine assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was killed yesterday while conducting “security and stability operations” in the volatile Anbar province and a second Marine died in a vehicle accident, the military reported.

The names of the two Marines were being withheld pending the notification of next of kin.

As of Tuesday, 943 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the Defense Department.

Meanwhile, Iraqi militants who said they captured a U.S. journalist last week have threatened to kill him within 48 hours, if U.S. forces do not pull out of Najaf, Al Jazeera television reported.

It showed footage of a man with a mustache kneeling in front of five masked men holding rifles. No audio could be heard, but the channel identified the man as Micah Garen and said the group called itself the Martyrs Brigade.

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