Peace talks bring halt to fighting in Najaf

Iraqi officials meet with al-Sadr's agents

End to `outlaw activity' sought


NAJAF, Iraq - U.S. troops and Muqtada al-Sadr's rebel militiamen paused yesterday after eight days of fighting to allow negotiations on a truce that would end the siege of a rebel bastion in the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in Islam.

Gunfire fell silent across most of the city as Iraqi government representatives met with emissaries of al-Sadr, the populist Shiite cleric, into the night at the provincial governor's headquarters. Al-Sadr's stand against U.S. forces here has stirred a widespread insurrection across southern Iraq, starting in Najaf then quickly setting off fighting in at least eight other predominantly Shiite cities.

The talks in Najaf appeared to have ended the risks of a climactic battle in the Old City here and the threat that battle would have posed to the 1,000-year-old mosque, burial place of Imam Ali, revered as the founder of Shiite Islam. But the terms set publicly by the two sides appeared far apart, and it was far from certain that a solution to nearly five months of sporadically deadly confrontation would be found.

Although Najaf has a profound religious significance to the world's Shiites, millions of whom visit the city each year, much more was at stake in the negotiations than re-establishing peace in this city of 500,000. If al-Sadr emerged from the negotiations with a deal that allowed him to say he had met U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies in battle for Shiism's most sacred shrine and forced them back, he would significantly enhance his claim to be the principal tribune of Iraqi resistance to U.S. military occupation, many Iraqis say.

Even as the talks opened, the cleric added a new imension to his legend. Aides claimed he suffered shrapnel wounds to the face, chest and shoulder during a skirmish that was said to have occurred near the Najaf shrine shortly after dawn on yesterday, just as the pause in fighting began. An aide, Ahmed al-Shaibany, told reporters that the cleric was "in a very good condition" in a safe place, but offered no other details.

Iraqi government officials and the U.S. command in Najaf said they could not confirm the report. But word of it among his fighters set off a fresh round of fury against the Americans, with vows of suicide bombings and other renewed attacks.

In meeting al-Sadr's challenge since he first staged a series of uprisings in April, U.S. officials - and now, the new Iraqi government - have had to wrestle with the knowledge that wounding or killing the cleric could set off a popular explosion.

In Washington yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell outlined tough conditions for the Najaf talks, ones that aligned with statements by aides to Ayad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister.

Allawi said al-Sadr and his fighters, known as the Mahdi Army, would be offered safe passage in return for disarming and accepting conditions that would restore government authority and preclude their seizing Najaf again. Powell said that the United States was leaving the negotiations to the Baghdad government but that "it has to be a solution that ends this kind of outlaw activity on the part of the Mahdi Army and similar organizations."

Powell set terms that appeared to reflect a growing conviction in Washington that the Najaf confrontation has become a watershed, with repercussions that could crucially affect U.S. hopes of wresting order out of what has become an increasingly chaotic situation across much of Iraq. Along with al-Sadr throwing much of Shiite Iraq into turmoil, Sunni Muslim insurgents in a dozen cities have also defied U.S. troops and the government in Baghdad, reducing much of Iraq to a patchwork of rebellion and disorder.

Powell spoke after indications in Najaf that the negotiations had bogged down, with both sides saying by last night that they had found little common ground. The sense of deadlock was compounded when al-Sadr reappeared late in the day at the Imam Ali shrine, according to a Reuters report that quoted an aide to the cleric, and said the tentative truce might be a ploy to trick his men into laying down arms.

"I will not leave this holy city," al-Sadr was reported to have said as supporters chanted, "No, no to America!" He added, "We will remain here defending the holy shrines until victory or martyrdom."

For the people of Najaf, the talks brought relief from the miseries of the fighting, which made a battleground of much of the Old City, especially a vast cemetery adjacent to the mosque, and left hundreds killed or wounded. U.S. troops mounted one last raid, a predawn attack yesterday on a minor mosque in Kufa, Najaf's twin city along the Euphrates River, that a U.S. military statement said had been a "militant stronghold."

Marines conducting the attack left fighting inside the mosque to Iraqi forces, the statement said, while mounting a security cordon outside. It said several of the militiamen had been killed.

The statement placed a positive slant on a situation that had deeply unsettled some U.S. commanders at the battlefront - preparing for days for what was expected to be a final assault on the al-Sadr strongholds in the Old City, then being ordered to call off the attack on Wednesday night in favor of a plan to cordon off the city's heart and "squeeze" al-Sadr and his men out.

The statement said that by the time yesterday's standstill came into effect, "over 80 percent of Najaf" was stabilized, "and is relatively calm except for isolated hotspots."

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