Tuesday, May 4, 2004

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite political leaders yesterday called on Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr to disarm and vowed to forge an Iraqi solution to the confrontation between the radical cleric and American forces.

It was the first collective effort by Sheik al-Sadr’s political rivals to avoid further violence in Najaf and Karbala, the holiest Shi’ite cities.

Militiamen loyal to the cleric fired mortars at a U.S. base in Najaf earlier yesterday and bombarded a municipal hall in Karbala.

North of Baghdad, four U.S. soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division were killed after their Humvee overturned during a combat patrol, the Army said.

“It is a shame to ask the occupation forces to solve this problem” in Najaf, Shi’ite leader Sheik Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum said at a meeting of Shi’ite parties, including members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

“We are taking a clear stand: Najaf and Karbala must be disarmed. These are holy cities that must have a Vaticanlike status.”

Sheik al-Uloum and other Shi’ite leaders said they opposed a U.S. assault on Najaf to apprehend Sheik al-Sadr and disband his Mahdi’s Army militia, but said he must submit to the postwar political system.

Sheik al-Sadr remained defiant during a visit to the pilgrimage town of Kufa.

“We want you to be more vigilant and more disciplined and, God willing, I’m leading you to martyrdom,” he said at Kufa’s grand mosque.

Sheik al-Sadr, whom American forces have pledged to kill or arrest, made his way to Kufa from his home in Najaf despite a strong U.S. troop presence outside both cities. Aides said he was able to avoid U.S. checkpoints along the way.

Sheik al-Sadr’s forces, which began an uprising in southern Iraq in April, have stepped up attacks in recent days, but U.S. forces have responded warily for fear of damaging Najaf’s holy shrines and angering the wider Shi’ite population.

Mahdi’s Army militants in Karbala yesterday shelled the city hall and police headquarters before daybreak. Both are guarded by Bulgarian soldiers, and no casualties were reported.

In western Iraq, a new Iraqi military force was patrolling the city of Fallujah, where a nearly monthlong siege has left 10 Marines and several hundred Iraqis dead.

A senior Marine officer said the new Iraqi force, which eventually will number up to 1,100 troops, was “meeting expectations” in bringing calm.

Col. John Coleman, chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said, “There is a percentage of [the city] where normalcy has returned.”

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Latif, who opposed former dictator Saddam Hussein, was preparing to take over the new force, subject to a final background check.

The U.S. move to have Gen. Latif to lead the Fallujah Brigade came amid complaints from some Iraqis that Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a former member of Saddam’s Republican Guard, might have been involved in past repression by the ousted regime.

The Honduran government, which announced April 19 it would pull its 360 soldiers out of Iraq in the shortest time possible, said yesterday it would need U.S. help to complete the withdrawal.

“We don’t have our own logistics capacity and therefore we depend, in the first instance, on getting safekeeping from Najaf to Kuwait, and in second place, on transportation from there to Honduran territory,” President Ricardo Maduro said.

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