- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. military officials and representatives of rebel Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held talks yesterday aimed at reducing violence in the restive Baghdad slum of Sadr City, a day after clashes there killed 10 persons, officials said.

British forces in the southern city of Basra, also the site of recent fighting, held similar talks with al-Sadr lieutenants there.

Both areas erupted in violence after U.S. forces and Sheik al-Sadr’s militants began fighting in the holy city of Najaf three weeks ago, and the talks yesterday appeared to be an effort by both sides to expand on the peace deal that ended the Najaf crisis Friday.

An agreement in Sadr City remained elusive, however, with Sheik al-Sadr’s aides demanding a U.S. pullout from the neighborhood, a condition U.S. officials rejected.

Meanwhile, guerrillas launched an attack on the country’s oil infrastructure in the south, blowing up several oil export pipelines and cutting already curtailed exports to about 500,000 barrels a day, an oil official said.

In the north, insurgents ambushed U.S. troops with rocket-propelled grenades near Mosul, sparking gunbattles that killed two attackers and wounded 34 civilians, the U.S. military said.

U.S. forces and Sheik al-Sadr’s militia, Mahdi’s Army, have been fighting for weeks in Sadr City, the eastern Baghdad slum named for the rebel cleric’s father. Though fighting ended in Najaf on Friday, skirmishes continued Saturday in Baghdad.

The head of a tribal negotiating team, Naim al-Bakhati, told reporters that all sides had agreed during talks yesterday that damaged areas there be rebuilt, U.S. troops withdraw from the area except for their normal patrols and that Iraqi police be allowed to enter the slum.

But “there was no agreement on the Mahdi’s Army handing over their weapons,” Mr. al-Bakhati said.

Col. Maarouf Moussa Omran, the Sadr City police chief, said all sides agreed to observe a one-day truce until this morning to give the Iraqi government time to discuss the results of the meeting.

But Lt. Col. Jim Hutton, a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, said “there has been no agreement of any kind,” adding that the talks were not negotiations.

Sadr City remained relatively peaceful yesterday. Fighting Saturday in the slum killed 10 persons and wounded 126, said Saad al-Amili, a Health Ministry official.

In Basra, a British commander held talks with Sheik al-Sadr’s top representative in the city, Sheik Asaad al-Basri, and the pro-al-Sadr deputy governor, Salam al-Maliki.

British Maj. Charlie Mayo, a coalition spokesman in Basra, described the meeting as a routine “interaction between the local British commanders and respected tribal leaders.”

The latest attack on Iraq’s oil infrastructure occurred when assailants blew up several export pipelines in al-Radgha, 30 miles southwest of Basra, an official at the state-run South Oil Co. said. On Saturday, saboteurs blew up another pipeline in the West Qurna oil fields, 90 miles north of Basra.

Early yesterday, insurgents holed up in a mosque near Mosul attacked U.S. patrols with rocket-propelled grenades twice in three hours, said Army Capt. Angela Bowman.

Soldiers returned fire during both assaults, killing two of the attackers, she said. No U.S. casualties were reported.

Scores of people were wounded “by flying debris and broken glass” while sleeping on rooftops to escape the summer heat, the U.S. military said. Citing a doctor at a hospital in Tal Afar, the military said 34 civilians were wounded, 26 of them women and children.

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