Thursday, April 15, 2004

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr agreed yesterday to unconditional talks over his standoff with American forces that threatens to spark open warfare against the U.S.-led coalition in both southern Iraq and much of Baghdad.

Separately, kidnappings of Westerners sparked by the recent fighting in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah took an ugly turn when Al Jazeera television announced that it has video footage of a hostage being executed. The hostage was one of four Italians working for a U.S. security firm. Al Jazeera said it would not broadcast the film.

U.S. Marines with fresh reinforcements fought a series of ferocious battles in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, as the United Nations called for a peaceful end to the conflict.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, visiting Baghdad to help determine how and when elections can be held, said the violence threatens to delay voting for a national assembly that will pick the president and write a constitution.

“The elections scheduled to take place in January 2005 are the most important milestone,” Mr. Brahimi said. “There is no substitute for the legitimacy that comes from free and fair elections.”

He recommended that the coalition dissolve the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and hand over sovereignty to a caretaker government led by a president, two vice presidents and a prime minister when the occupation formally ends June 30.

The caretaker government would administer the country until elections, which, under the recommendation, would be held no later than Jan. 31. Washington, which is under growing pressure from other coalition members to give the United Nations a greater role in Iraq, reportedly favors expanding the present Governing Council.

Amid talk of peace in Baghdad, Marines under fire in Fallujah called in air support from helicopters and fighter jets.

The Marines control about one-fourth of the city, their plans for advancing halted by a Friday cease-fire and negotiations between clerics in the city and officials from the Governing Council.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that four more Marines had died, bringing the number of American combat deaths to at least 87 this month, surpassing the highest total for any month since the March 20, 2003, invasion to topple Saddam Hussein began.

In the south, 2,500 U.S. troops continued to dig in outside the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, preparing for an assault against Sheik al-Sadr. An attack on the city likely would outrage Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, a community that — aside from Sheik al-Sadr’s militia — has shunned anti-U.S. violence.

Iraqi clerics and politicians have begun negotiations with Sheik al-Sadr, trying to get him to back down sufficiently to avert a U.S. attack.

An envoy for Sheik al-Sadr said a deal could be imminent with U.S.-led authorities who have vowed to kill or capture the rebel cleric.

Sheik al-Sadr, who launched an anti-American uprising this month and now is holed up in Najaf, was reported earlier to have offered the unconditional talks to spare Najaf a blood bath.

“I expect a solution within the next 24 hours. I met U.S. officials today, and the talks were extremely positive,” said Abdelkarim al-Anzi, who was appointed by the defiant Shi’ite cleric to lead negotiations.

According to aides of Sheik al-Sadr, he has agreed to drop some key demands, including that the coalition free all detained fighters from his Mahdi’s Army, and pull out troops from residential areas of major southern cities.

The coalition has issued an arrest warrant against Sheik al-Sadr in the killing of a rival Shi’ite leader last year. One report yesterday indicated he would be willing to surrender to a “new democratic government.”

There was no comment available from U.S.-led authorities on these offers.

U.S. troops said earlier they had not seen any sign of Sheik al-Sadr’s forces backing down.

“The indication I’m getting is that they are not retreating,” Reuters news agency quoted Col. Dana Pittard, commander of the 3rd Brigade Task Force, as saying. The task force is poised outside Najaf.

In other developments, a French television journalist was freed yesterday. Alexandre Jordanov was kidnapped Sunday amid a wave of abductions in which at least 21 foreigners are still being held captive.

Japan, which also has troops in Iraq, said it was investigating reports that two more Japanese had been taken hostage, in addition to three held since last week.

U.S. officials and the top U.S. contractor in Iraq, Halliburton, were trying to determine whether four bodies found were any of the seven Americans missing since gunmen attacked their convoy near Abu Ghraib, 10 miles west of Baghdad, on Friday. One of the seven, Thomas Hamill of Macon, Miss., is known to have been kidnapped and threatened with death.

A rocket hit the Sheraton Hotel in central Baghdad yesterday, breaking windows but causing no casualties in the heavily guarded compound that houses many foreign contractors and journalists. A second rocket failed to go off and was found in the street outside the hotel compound.

The truce in Fallujah was severely shaken by fighting Tuesday and early yesterday — although Marines contended that their halt to offensive operations, called Friday, was still in effect.

“I don’t forecast that this stalemate will go on for long,” said Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division. “It’s hard to have a cease-fire when they maneuver against us, they fire at us. We are trying to maintain the cease-fire, but the enemy is not maintaining the cease-fire.”

A U.S. Cobra attack helicopter fired rockets and heavy machine guns before dawn at gunmen gathered on the northern edge of Fallujah. Rocket-propelled grenades streamed toward the helicopter and a second gunship providing support, but none apparently hit its target.

Early yesterday, an A-130 gunship pounded a row of buildings from which Marines say ambushes repeatedly have been launched in a residential area.

Gunmen repeatedly attacked one house in Fallujah that the Marines were using. At least 12 gunmen were killed in two nights of attacks.

Insurgents yesterday offered the Iraqi equivalent of $7,000 for anyone who kills Mouwafak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, after he called for Fallujah residents to hand over militants to the United States.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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