- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

BAGHDAD — Five U.S. soldiers were killed and five wounded when their convoy came under attack in Baghdad yesterday and the U.S. military announced the capture of a close aide of a top al Qaeda-linked terrorist in Iraq.

In the south, the military and Shi’ite militia loyal to a radical cleric agreed to withdraw from areas around holy shrines in Najaf and Kufa and turn over security to Iraqi police, an Iraqi official said.

The 10 soldiers who came under attack near Baghdad’s Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City were members of Task Force Baghdad, which is made up primarily of the Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division, said division spokesman Army Lt. Col. James Hutton.

U.S. military command said Umar Baziyani, a suspected associate of Abu Musab Zarqawi, was arrested last Saturday and is said to be providing information to coalition authorities.

Jordanian-born Zarqawi is suspected of links to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and is believed to be the man who decapitated American Nicholas Berg in a videotape released last month.

He also is believed to have been behind numerous suicide bombings in Iraq. U.S. authorities are offering a $10 million reward for his capture.

Baziyani is known to have ties to several extremist terrorist groups in Iraq and is believed to be responsible for the deaths of scores of innocent Iraqis, the military said. He also is wanted for activities against the U.S.-led coalition, it said.

The reported agreement with Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the twin cities of Najaf and Kufa is similar to the accord that ended the bloody, three-week Marine siege of Fallujah, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad. The Marines struck a deal there to lift the siege and hand over security to an Iraqi force commanded by former officers from Saddam Hussein’s army.

Local authorities in Najaf and Kufa hope the presence of more Iraqi police will defuse tensions and allow the agreement to take hold where an earlier deal with Sheik al-Sadr did not. Many Iraqi police deserted when the cleric began his uprising two months ago, handing the streets over to his Mahdi’s Army.

Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi announced yesterday’s agreement, in which he said both sides agreed to withdraw from around the shrines in Najaf and Kufa. The Americans refuse to negotiate directly with Sheik al-Sadr and said they agreed to a request by Mr. al-Zurufi to reposition forces in the interest of peace.

Col. Brian May, commander of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, said U.S. commanders agreed to stay away from “sensitive areas” — the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf and the Kufa mosque where Sheik al-Sadr preaches — because Mr. al-Zurufi assured them the militia had “been reduced to the point where the legitimate Iraqi security forces can move in to those very sensitive areas.”

“It’s an Iraqi solution to the problem,” he said.

But by late yesterday, militiamen showed no intention of leaving the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. They told the Associated Press that they were instructed only to put down their weapons — not to withdraw.

About 15 Iraqi police moved a half a mile from the shrine, but militia officials said they would not withdraw from the area without firm guarantees that American troops would not hunt them down.

Sheik al-Sadr did not mention the deal in a statement read on his behalf in the Kufa mosque. The statement denounced an interim Iraqi government appointed this week and insisted on an elected leadership for Iraq.

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