U.S. Halts Attacks On Sadr's Militiamen
Cleric Vows Withdrawal Of Some Najaf Fighters
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD, May 27 -- After weeks of urban fighting in southern Iraq, U.S. troops suspended attacks on Shiite Muslim insurgents Thursday in response to an offer by rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr to partially withdraw militia forces from the holy city of Najaf and evacuate government buildings.
Sadr's offer, made in writing to Shiite mediators and passed to U.S. occupation authorities, fell far short of the requirements U.S. commanders have said Sadr must meet before they would suspend efforts to subdue the insurgency. During Sadr's seven-week revolt, U.S. officials repeatedly demanded he disarm his Mahdi Army militia and give himself up to Iraqi courts to face charges of murdering a moderate cleric last year.
Nonetheless, U.S. officials said Thursday that once Sadr fulfilled his promises, commanders were prepared to withdraw troops from the city, except those left to guard a few government offices.
"Until that time, coalition forces will suspend offensive operations but will continue to provide security by carrying out presence patrols. Throughout the process, coalition forces will retain the right of self-defense," said Daniel Senor, spokesman for the U.S. occupation authority.
Besides promising to withdraw guerrillas who came to Najaf from elsewhere in Iraq and to evacuate government buildings, Sadr vowed to cease operation of Islamic courts and allow Iraqi police to resume work. He wrote that he would hold "broad talks" with members of the Shiite establishment on the future of the Mahdi Army and his pending court case.
By late Thursday evening, however, it was not clear that even the limited withdrawal of guerrillas was taking place. Reporters observed dozens of gunmen gathered around the Imam Ali mosque, the holiest Shiite shrine in the city. U.S. troops in armored vehicles were positioned not far away at police stations and 1920 Revolution Square.
The day ended on a note that illustrated the multitude of dangers plaguing Iraq. A member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, Salama Khufaji, was ambushed while traveling to Baghdad from Najaf, where she had gone Thursday morning to protest the fighting there.
Khufaji survived the attack on her three-vehicle convoy, but four people were killed, including her son. The attack took place near Yusufiya, a town rife with Sunni Muslim and anti-U.S. insurgent groups.
Earlier in the day, Khufaji said in an interview: "The language of military action must be replaced by dialogue. We call on all honorable people to stand on our side to stop the bloodshed."
In Washington, meanwhile, the Pentagon reported that the killings of three Marines in Iraq on Wednesday brought the number of U.S. military dead to more than 800. According to Defense Department figures, 802 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since March 19, 2003, including 587 killed in action.
[On Friday, Japanese media reported that gunmen near Baghdad had attacked a car carrying two Japanese men believed to be journalists, their interpreter and driver, killing one of the four. A government spokesman was unable to confirm details of the attack.]
If the Najaf agreement is carried out and southern Iraq calms down, it would be a major landmark on the road to June 30, the date set for formal transfer of limited authority from the U.S.-led occupation authority to an interim Iraqi government.
Shiite mediators who worked out the deal said it effectively affirmed a broad desire among Shiites for a peaceful transfer of authority that would allow elections to be held in January. Shiite leaders regard the planned vote as a historic chance to rule Iraq, a country that has been dominated by the Sunni minority for centuries.
"We want to safeguard the transformation of Iraq and the lives of civilians," said Adnan Ali, a senior member of the Dawa party, a major Shiite political organization.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company