U.S. military clashes with rebels in Najaf

Talks to end standoff at shrine remain stalled

5 U.S. soldiers die in Iraq

August 23, 2004|By Edmund Sanders and T. Christian Miller | Edmund Sanders and T. Christian Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAJAF, Iraq - The U.S. military clashed aggressively with forces of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as negotiations to end the standoff at one of Islam's most revered shrines remained stalled yesterday.

U.S. tanks approached within several hundred yards of the Imam Ali Mosque where al-Sadr's supporters were holed up. Militants from his Al Mahdi militia skirmished with U.S. and Iraqi forces in the surrounding city throughout the day and into early this morning.

Away from Najaf, the U.S. military announced the death of five soldiers. One Marine from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Al Anbar province in western Iraq was killed and three died of injuries suffered in separate incidents Saturday.

A bomb attack yesterday evening against a U.S. convoy west of Mosul in northern Iraq killed one U.S. soldier and wounded another, military officials said. Two Iraqis were injured in the blast, including a child.

Micah Garen, a kidnapped U.S. journalist, was released.

The standoff at the shrine has become one of the most delicate challenges for the interim government of Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Any attack on the shrine risks inflaming Iraq's Shiite majority.

But capitulating to al-Sadr would be a sign of weakness for Allawi's government, which is trying to establish control over the war-torn country before elections planned for January.

"Time is running. We cannot wait forever," Ministry of State Qassim Daoud said yesterday.

Sporadic fighting continued around the shrine area. It remained unclear whether U.S. and Iraqi forces would launch an assault on the mosque, the most sacred site in Iraq for Shiites. Reuters reported that a top al-Sadr aide, Sheikh Ahmed al-Sheibani, said one wall of the shrine was hit during fighting early this morning. The report could not be immediately confirmed.

In southern Iraq, al-Sadr representatives announced that an American journalist kidnapped Aug. 14 had been freed.

Garen, 36, a freelancer who had written for The New York Times, was released yesterday, along with his translator, Amir Doushi, according to Al Jazeera television and media groups.

U.S. Embassy representatives could not immediately confirm the account yesterday.

Last week, Garen had appeared on a video, kneeling and surrounded by five armed men who identified themselves as members of the Martyr's Brigade.

Al-Sadr aides applied pressure for his release, including making a public appeal for his freedom during Friday prayers last week.

"I am very grateful to everyone who worked to protect me and guarantee my release, and I thank my friends in Nassiriya and my family and fiancee who spent three months with me in Nassiriya," Garen told Arab satellite television Al Jazeera by telephone.

He spoke from al-Sadr's office in Nassiriya.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Army of Ansar al-Sunna announced yesterday on its Web site that it had kidnapped 12 Nepalese in retaliation for their cooperation with U.S. forces.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times special correspondents Roaa Ahmed in Mosul and Othman Ghanim in Basra contributed to this article.

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