About 400 people joined a peaceful demonstration Tuesday in Najaf, demanding that the militia of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr leave the city.
Some of the demonstrators called for other Shiite religious leaders to take action against Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army, which has engaged U.S. forces in a month-long standoff. "We ask the religious leadership in Najaf to take the Sadr followers and the Mahdi Army away from the city," said Abid Turfi, 29, one of the demonstrators.
Followers of Sadr held a counter-demonstration later.
The provincial governor of Najaf, Adnan Zurufi, said Tuesday that he would ask U.S. authorities to defer the prosecution of Sadr on murder charges if his militiamen agreed to disarm and disband.
After meeting with tribal leaders, Zurufi said: "I hope to meet Moqtada Sadr to negotiate about disbanding the Mahdi Army peacefully. If he doesn't agree to disband it peacefully, it will be disbanded by force."
In a statement, Sadr repeated his calls for an end to the U.S.-led occupation and said he would be willing to negotiate, but only if the terms were "fair, honest and supervised" by Shiite religious leaders. He is wanted by the occupation authority on charges of involvement in the killing of another Shiite cleric last year.
On Tuesday evening, representatives of Sadr's militia and several Shiite political groups met at the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.
The U.S. commander responsible for Najaf said Sadr had become increasingly unpopular because his militia has extorted money from people in mosques, businesses and on the street.
The commander, Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey of the 1st Armored Division, said he was trying to recruit 7,500 men to join the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. When clashes erupted in Najaf and other southern cities last month, many members of the paramilitary force, which U.S. officials created last year, deserted or refused to follow orders. The recruits would mostly be young, unemployed men affiliated with Shiite groups.
In Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, a soldier assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was killed Tuesday by "enemy action," the Marines announced.
[Early Wednesday, U.S. soldiers backed by tanks and helicopters battled Mahdi Army fighters in the holy city of Karbala, the Associated Press reported, citing witnesses. Much of the fighting took place near the Mukhaiyam mosque, which has been a base for Sadr loyalists.
[The fighting involved the 1st Armored Division and lasted for several hours. There was no immediate word on casualties.]
Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.