- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr will end his violent standoff with American troops if the U.S.-led coalition postpones its legal case against him and sets up an Iraqi force to patrol his stronghold of Najaf, Iraqi leaders in the city said yesterday.

About 40 Iraqi political and tribal leaders, including a senior aide to Sheik al-Sadr, agreed on the proposal at a meeting at the most prominent shrine in the holy Shi’ite city, where American forces have fought the cleric’s militia this month. The standoff comes as U.S. forces try to improve security ahead of a June 30 deadline for the turnover of sovereignty to Iraqis.

There was no immediate response from the coalition to the offer from Najaf, but the new U.S.-appointed governor of the city offered earlier in the day to defer murder charges against Sheik al-Sadr if the young firebrand disbands his militia.

Mansour al-Assadi, a senior tribal leader, said a proposed deal would require all armed groups in Najaf to withdraw from the city, a step that would defuse rising tension among rival Iraqi groups. In exchange, murder charges against Sheik al-Sadr would be postponed until a permanent constitution is adopted next year, and he would be tried by an Islamic court.

Qays al-Khaz’ali, a senior aide to Sheik al-Sadr, attended the meeting and confirmed that participants agreed on an offer to end the standoff.

Adnan al-Zurufi, who was appointed Najaf governor last week, said he will ask the U.S.-led administration to delay legal proceedings against Sheik al-Sadr until after the Americans transfer power to a new Iraqi administration June 30.

Sheik al-Sadr has been holed up in Najaf since early April after U.S. authorities announced an arrest warrant against him in connection with the April 2003 assassination of a rival cleric in Najaf.

His forces have clashed with U.S., British and other occupation forces across southern Iraq and in Baghdad since then. Five Iraqis were killed and 14 injured during fighting late Monday between U.S. troops and Sheik al-Sadr’s militia in Najaf’s twin city, Kufa, hospital sources said.

Earlier yesterday, about 1,000 people, including a few women in black veils, marched through the streets of Najaf to urge Sheik al-Sadr and his followers to leave the city.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said one Russian energy company worker was confirmed dead and two others abducted Monday when gunmen fired on their car south of Baghdad. An Iraqi serving as a bodyguard and translator was wounded, a spokesman for the Interenergoservis energy company said.

Gunmen attacked a U.S.-run civilian convoy operated by workers hired by a subcontractor of Kellogg Brown & Root in the western desert about 230 miles west of Baghdad. A motorist said he saw six burned vehicles, including one Iraqi civilian car caught in the cross fire.

In Kuwait, the chief of Iraq’s war-crimes tribunal said the United States has pledged to hand over former dictator Saddam Hussein and dozens of other suspects from the ousted regime to Iraqi authorities by the time some sovereignty is restored June 30. U.S. officials disputed any decisions on timing.

Salem Chalabi said trials would begin next year and that judges would receive “files” on the suspects at the end of this year.

“We will put 100 people… including Saddam Hussein, on trial,” he said. The suspects, “will be delivered to us by the coalition before the transfer of power.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he did not know anything about handing over Saddam. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also said there was no decision on when to hand over Saddam, who has been in U.S. custody since he was captured Dec. 13.

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