Ultimatum refused, U.S. hits Najaf

Cleric rejects Allawi's call to quit city, lay down arms

Al-Sadr: `Victory or martyrdom'

August 20, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued a "final call" yesterday to the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to surrender his weapons and vacate the city of Najaf, as hopes faded that al-Sadr would soon comply with the terms of a peace plan.

Hours after Allawi issued his ultimatum, heavy explosions rocked Najaf as U.S. warplanes went into action, pounding targets around the Imam Ali shrine where al-Sadr is holed up with his militia supporters.

The explosions lit up the night sky in what witnesses described as the fiercest bombardment of the 2-week-old battle.

It was unclear whether the fighting heralded the final onslaught against the shrine, but Iraqi officials made it plain that they are growing impatient with al-Sadr's continued defiance of their calls for him to withdraw from the mosque.

On a day that saw messages and demands bounce back and forth between al-Sadr's aides and government officials, Allawi called on al-Sadr to appear in person to confirm his apparent acceptance of a peace plan proposed by a delegation from Iraq's national conference.

An al-Sadr aide in Najaf said al-Sadr responded to the government's latest ultimatum by sending him a message containing the words "victory or martyrdom." The aide, Haidar al-Tourfi, said he took that to be a rejection.

Efforts to deal with al-Sadr have been complicated by the fact that he usually communicates through spokesmen and aides who make frequent and often contradictory appearances on Arabic news channels to convey his position.

"We have not heard directly from al-Sadr himself. We have heard from elements and aides around him, but we did not hear from him directly," Allawi said. "We would like to hear from him before finally moving to the next phase.

"This is the final call to them to disarm, vacate the holy shrine, engage in political work and to consider the interests of the homeland," Allawi said.

The call for al-Sadr to make a television appearance was endorsed by Hussein Sadr, the cleric who led the delegation to Najaf to present the peace plan.

"We need now to have practical proof of his good intentions," he said. "I do not ask Muqtada Sadr for anything except to appear on the TV screen to say he is complying with the demands of the Iraqi national conference."

Al-Sadr refused to meet the delegation dispatched to Najaf on Tuesday by the national con ference to present the three- point plan, which calls for al-Sadr to vacate the shrine, disarm his militia and enter politics.

But the next day, he sent a message through aides to his office in Baghdad saying that he accepted the plan. The message was read at Iraq's national conference, which met in Baghdad this week to elect a parliament.

A number of aides made television appearances Wednesday to explain al-Sadr's position. Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, a spokesman in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, said al-Sadr would not appear on television because it is "not the logic" of al-Sadr to do so.

If mediation fails, al-Daraji warned, "the battles will engulf all of Iraq and every Iraqi city."

Ahmed Shaibani, another aide, told Al-Jazeera television that al-Sadr is open to all forms of negotiation and urged delegations from the United Nations and the Vatican to visit.

Al-Arabiya television showed a letter obtained from yet another aide purporting to contain a message from al-Sadr urging his followers to leave the shrine. But the letter said al-Sadr would not disband his militia, the government's top priority.

The government also sent out conflicting messages, with the minister of state, Qassim Dawood, telling reporters in Najaf that "military action is imminent."

Hours later, Allawi said at a news conference in Baghdad, with Dawood at his side: "We are determined to explore all possible avenues for the sake of Iraq. I can't put a date yet," he added, when asked how long the government would give al-Sadr to comply.

Earlier in the day, seven police officers died when their station in Najaf was hit by at least one mortar round fired from the direction of the shrine.

In violence elsewhere, rebels reportedly set fire to the headquarters of Iraq's Southern Oil Co. in Basra after a threat by al-Sadr's supporters to attack Iraq's oil infrastructure if U.S. forces do not withdraw from Najaf.

There were also sporadic clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City, a stronghold of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, where U.S. forces advanced for a second day to reclaim territory that had been held by the militia.

There were a few firefights and occasional explosions from roadside bombs detonating as U.S. forces passed. But resistance was light, military officials said.

"They're probably figuring they'll hole up and live to fight another day," said Capt. Randall McCauley, an intelligence officer involved in the attack. "We have the initiative. We're killing a lot of fighters. They realize this."

The military said Wednesday that it had killed 10 fighters on the first push into the slum.

Iraq's Health Ministry said yesterday that eight people had died.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday in Sadr City, both from gunshot wounds in separate incidents, said Capt. Brian O'Malley, an Army spokesman.

Also in Baghdad, a mortar shell hit the roof of the U.S. Embassy, injuring an American, embassy officials said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 947 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 809 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identification

Army Spc. Brandon T. Titus, 20, Boise, Idaho; killed Tuesday in Baghdad in an explosion near his checkpoint; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.

Associated Press

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