Peace talks fail in Najaf 1 day after cease-fire

Thousands of al-Sadr supporters converge on revered Shiite shrine

August 15, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Talks aimed at persuading the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to withdraw from Najaf collapsed yesterday, paving the way for a resumption of the bloody battle for control of the city.

Iraq's national security adviser, Muwaffak al-Rubaie, said he was "overcome with deep sorrow" by the failure of the negotiations, launched late last week in a bid to avert a potentially explosive showdown between al-Sadr's black-clad militia fighters and the joint U.S.-Iraqi force ringing the ancient city.

Hours earlier, thousands of al-Sadr supporters had converged on the mosque from around the country, responding to an appeal issued by radical clerics the previous day at Friday prayers to demonstrate their support.

They remain inside the compound of the Imam Ali mosque and they will stay there to defend their leader, said one of al-Sadr's top aides, Qais al-Khazaali.

"The negotiations were just a trick," he told the Al Arabiya television station. "Their [the government's] plan was to allow more people to go inside Najaf and then to kill them and perpetrate a huge massacre."

Iraqi government officials suggested that al-Sadr had called the cease-fire so he could summon reinforcements. The crowd that descended on Najaf was not armed, but U.S. officials believe al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has stockpiled large quantities of weapons inside the mosque compound and in the nearby cemetery, which has been the focus of much of the bloody fighting.

Officials blamed the collapse of the talks on al-Sadr, who added at the last minute a new condition for his withdrawal from the city: the resignation of Allawi's government.

Al-Sadr's demands

In an interview earlier in the day with Qatar-based Al Jazeera television, al-Sadr said he would not leave Najaf until the government resigned and U.S. forces left Iraq. "The people reject the government, and I, too, should reject it since I speak on behalf of the people," he said.

"Every Saddam, every government which aggresses against the Iraqi people in this despicable manner by cooperating with the occupation must be removed," he added, comparing Allawi to Saddam Hussein.

The government had been on the brink of signing a deal but became alarmed by the triumphalist tone of al-Sadr's comments, said Ismail Thayer, editor of the independent al Sabah newspaper, who has been closely following the negotiations.

"The government really gave him a chance, but he misunderstood and began to talk as though he was victorious, which is very dangerous," he said. "It made everyone very nervous - the president, the prime minister, everyone."

U.S. officials say they have not been participating in the talks, but Ahmed al-Shaibany, another al-Sadr spokesman in Najaf, blamed the failure of the negotiations on the Americans.

"There are particular points and demands we had that we specifically wanted the Americans to sign on, but they refused," al-Shaibany said.

Friday's cease-fire bid came a day after U.S. forces pushed deep into the narrow streets of the ancient heart of Najaf in a fresh offensive designed to tighten the cordon around al-Sadr's fighters operating out of the mosque. Around 3,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers, aided by 1,800 Iraqis, have been battling to drive al-Sadr from the mosque since Aug. 5.

U.S. troops had hung back from approaching the mosque, however, saying that any assault on the shrine would be conducted by Iraqi forces, out of respect for the reverence accorded to the mosque built over the shrine of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

Other Iraq fighting

The push ignited a firestorm of rage across much of Iraq, and the failure of the peace bid threatens to deepen the violence that has engulfed not only Najaf but also huge swaths of southern Iraq over the past 10 days.

In the latest battle, Iraqi police said 13 people died in the town of Hilla, about 60 miles southeast of Baghdad, when insurgents stormed the police station Friday and surrounded 20 Polish members of the coalition. They were later evacuated, a coalition statement said without elaboration.

And in a reminder that the Sunni insurgency to the north and west of Baghdad is still simmering, U.S. warplanes bombed the mainly Sunni town of Samarra, an insurgent stronghold, after American forces came under attack there. The U.S. military said 50 militants were killed, but local police officials said 12 died.

Hundreds of people have died across Iraq since the battle for Najaf erupted, including 360 Mahdi Army fighters who the U.S. military says were killed in Najaf.

Baghdad remained tense, though the clashes that flared last week between U.S. forces and Mahdi militia in the al-Sadr stronghold of Sadr City have subsided. Some government offices and ministries reopened yesterday after sending their workers home Tuesday in response to threats of attack. But many shops and businesses remained closed.

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