Al-Sadr shows renewed interest in truce

Najaf fighting continues, but Shiite militia seems to be weakening, U.S. says

August 24, 2004|By Edmund Sanders and T. Christian Miller | Edmund Sanders and T. Christian Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAJAF, Iraq -- With fighting raging and support apparently weakening yesterday, forces loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appeared to renew their interest in a negotiated end to the siege of one of Islam's holiest shrines.

Spokesmen for al-Sadr said they were willing to be flexible on some of their demands before turning control of the Imam Ali shrine over to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's top Shiite religious leader.

A high-ranking al-Sadr aide, Sheik Ahmed Shibani, said the rebels were willing to let security at the mosque be handled by other religious figures. That signaled a change from the demand that al-Sadr's "Mahdi Army" guard the shrine.

The sacred site is believed to contain the remains of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

Religious issue

In remarks to reporters yesterday, Shibani also seemed to back away from the demand that Sistani conduct an inventory of the shrine's valuables before a hand-over. Sistani had refused to allow his representatives to enter the shrine until the militants left. Abu Thir Kinany, another al-Sadr spokesman, warned against intervention by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

"A religious committee must be formed to handle this great, sacred shrine," Kinany said on Al-Jazeera television. "We don't trust this government and consider it a source of terrorism."

Last night, U.S. forces launched a three-pronged attack on the outer ring of the mosque area, destroying Mahdi targets within 200 yards of the shrine itself.

In the process, U.S. Army and Marine units for the first time crossed the ring road that encircles the mosque neighborhood.

U.S. troops approached the shrine area from the north, south and west, pounding targets with AC-130 warplanes, Hellfire missiles and tank rounds. Resistance was heaviest to the south of the mosque in the Old City, where soldiers attacked a complex of buildings. At least two large fires burned until the early morning, and repeated explosions echoed throughout the city.

In the nearby cemetery -- the scene of many recent battles -- U.S. tanks pounded a building and barrier wall that military officials believe militiamen had used for cover.

The wall had been rigged with explosives set to detonate when the Americans approached, officials said. Unlike previous nights, opposition in the cemetery and west of the shrine was light, perhaps a signal that the militia was softening.

"I think they're tired, but I don't think they've given up," said Army Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, commander of 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.

Despite reports that al-Sadr's followers had removed their weapons from the shrine, military radar picked up a mortar attack originating there, officials said.

Violence elsewhere

In the Iraqi capital today, a car bomb targeting the environment minister killed at least two people and wounded two others, officials said.

Environment Minister Miskhat Moumin was traveling in a convoy in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Kadisea when the blast occurred, said ministry spokesman Dalal Ali. Moumin escaped unharmed, Ali said.

In a second attack, a roadside bomb aimed at the education minister's convoy exploded in western Baghdad, killing one person and injuring two others, police said.

Education Minister Sami Mudhafar was not in the convoy at the time of the attack and was not wounded, a police brigadier said.

Elsewhere, the Health Ministry reported that 14 Iraqis were killed and 89 wounded in fighting in the past 24 hours.

The standoff at the shrine has emerged as the first major test of authority for the U.S.-installed Iraqi government, led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Any attempt to seize the shrine by force risks inflaming Iraq's majority Shiite population, which considers the site sacred. But al-Sadr's defiance has made Allawi appear weak, alternating between threats of military action and pledges to avoid attacks on the shrine.

A deal in which al-Sadr handed control to Sistani, a far more eminent figure, would appear to allow both sides to save face. Al-Sadr would avoid capitulating to the government as his forces pack up and leave.

Jaber Habib, a political scientist at Baghdad University, pointed to growing pressure on Allawi and al-Sadr to bring the crisis to a peaceful resolution.

"The Iraqi people don't want more bloodshed," he said. "At the end of the day, you can't get a solution only with the military. You cannot only show muscles."

Also yesterday, freed American journalist Micah Garen was doing well and in U.S. hands at an undisclosed location in Iraq.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 958 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, 820 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identification

Marine Cpl. Brad P. McCormick, 23, Allons, Tenn.; killed Thursday in an attack in Anbar province; assigned to the Marine Corps Reserves 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division; Nashville, Tenn.

Associated Press

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