NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 13 -- U.S. forces abruptly ceased offensive operations here against the militia of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr on Friday to create an opportunity for peace talks between representatives of Iraq's interim government and people close to Sadr, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
Sadr issued a statement late Friday calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Najaf and for the Shiite holy city to be placed under the custodianship of two senior ayatollahs. One of Sadr's aides, Ali Smaisim, said that if the militia pulled out of Najaf, the cleric wanted its members to be granted amnesty and his supporters to be allowed to participate in politics.
The radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr, speaking at the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, proposed a mutual withdrawal of forces and amnesty for his fighters.
(Television Image Via Reuters)
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Senior government officials in Baghdad met into the night Friday to discuss the proposal, but there was no immediate announcement of whether the terms were acceptable to Iraq's interim leadership. Government officials have demanded that Sadr disband his militia, the Mahdi Army, but this was not part of Sadr's offer, as it was outlined by Smaisim.
As the crisis has escalated, both sides have been pushed toward a settlement, despite concerns among U.S. military officials that any negotiated end to the hostilities that allowed Sadr to retain his militia could pose a serious threat to the interim government.
At 11 p.m. Friday, a spokesman for Sadr, Ahmed Shaibani, said a cease-fire agreement had been reached with government negotiators calling for a halt to fighting but not a withdrawal of forces. Shaibani, who called the talks "serious and positive, but difficult," said the deal applied only to Najaf and not to other Iraqi cities racked by violence between Sadr's militiamen and security forces.
Shortly after Shaibani's announcement, Sadr walked into the gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf's old quarter, which was seized by the Mahdi Army last week, and exhorted his supporters to "keep fighting."
"I will not leave Najaf, and I ask all the holy warriors not to leave," he said. "I ask all holy warriors to stay firm and fight. We say this truce might be a trick. Don't be deceived."
In a brief but defiant address, Sadr called on the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to resign. Allawi's government, he said, was "rejected by all Iraqis."
"We got rid of Saddam [Hussein], but we got a worse government," he said.
Although Sadr's aides had told reporters earlier on Friday that the cleric had been wounded in the chest and leg by shrapnel, he did not appear to be hurt during his appearance at the shrine.
Despite Sadr's belligerent language, his militia remained largely quiet in Najaf on Friday. There were none of the mortar volleys fired at U.S. and Iraqi forces as they had been on Thursday, and almost no small-arms or rocket-propelled grenade fire.
Sadr appears to be keen to negotiate because his militia suffered significant casualties in a multi-pronged assault by U.S. and Iraqi forces that began on Thursday. Iraq's interim government seems equally eager to end the fighting because the instability here has spread across much of central and southern Iraq in recent days, sparking large demonstrations on Friday, apparent defections from police and national guard units, and strident criticism from neighboring nations.
Last weekend, Allawi vowed that there would be "no negotiations or truce" with Sadr, and on Thursday, Interior Minister Falah Naqib said the government had "no other solution" than military force for dealing with the Mahdi Army. On Friday, however, Naqib extended an olive branch to the cleric, promising that Sadr would "not be touched if he leaves the shrine peacefully," according to the Reuters news agency.
U.S. military commanders were skeptical that the truce would lead to a lasting deal. "My personal and my professional belief is that the militia has no intentions of adhering to any altruistic beliefs in a cease-fire," said Maj. David Holahan, the executive officer of the 1st Battalion of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "They will use every opportunity they have to get an advantage on us."