Shiite radical promises to pull out militia after key arrest

Thursday, May 27, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq -- Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr agreed Wednesday to withdraw his militia from Najaf and hand the city back to Iraqi police, the government said, raising hopes for an end to weeks of fighting that threatened some of Shia Islam's holiest sites.

The announcement by National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie took place after U.S. troops arrested al-Sadr's key lieutenant in a pre-dawn raid. Clashes late Tuesday and early Wednesday between U.S. troops and militia fighters killed 24 people and wounded nearly 50 here, hospital and militia officials said.

There was no confirmation by al-Sadr. However, an agreement to abandon Najaf would be a major step toward ending his uprising in the south only weeks before a new Iraqi government takes power June 30, formally ending the U.S.-led occupation.

Also Wednesday, three Marines were killed in Anbar province "while conducting security and stability operations," the military said, decline to release further details because of security concerns. The province includes the western suburbs of Baghdad as well as Fallujah, Ramadi and Qaim.

Al-Rubaie, a Shiite and former Governing Council member, said al-Sadr made the offer in a letter to the city's Shiite clerical hierarchy. According to al-Rubaie, al-Sadr offered to remove his fighters from Najaf -- except for those who live there -- but demanded that U.S. and other coalition troops "return to base," allowing Iraqi police to regain control of the city.

The young Shiite radical also demanded "broad discussions" within the Shiite community over the future of his al-Mahdi Army militia and that legal proceedings against him in a murder case be deferred until then.

Al-Sadr said he is making this offer because of "the tragic condition" in Najaf after weeks of fighting between his militiamen and the Americans and the slight damage suffered by the city's holiest shrine, the Imam Ali mosque.

Fighting around some of the holiest cities of Shia Islam has angered many Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere and has led to calls for both the Americans and the militiamen to pull back.

On Tuesday, the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf received slight damage. Both U.S. and Shiite forces blamed the other.

American forces seized al-Sadr's key lieutenant, Riyadh al-Nouri, during a raid on his Najaf home about 4 a.m. Wednesday. U.S. officials said al-Nouri offered no resistance.

Al-Nouri's arrest was a major blow to the al-Mahdi Army, which has been fighting coalition forces since early April in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and in the Shiite heartland south of the capital.

Al-Sadr launched his uprising after the U.S.-led occupation authority launched a crackdown on his movement. An Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant charging both al-Sadr and al-Nouri in the April 2003 assassination of a moderate cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoei.

U.S. officials have expressed their desire for a peaceful settlement to the standoff but have insisted that al-Sadr disband his "illegal militia" and submit to "justice before an Iraqi court."

"We still are committed to finding a peaceful resolution to this problem," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy chief of operations, told reporters in Baghdad before word of al-Sadr's offer. "But until that peaceful resolution comes forward ... we will continue to conduct military operations directed against his forces."

In addition to the Najaf clashes, U.S. officials said American soldiers fought 21 small engagements with militiamen in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood late Tuesday and early Wednesday. No casualty figures were released.

With signs of hope on the security front, steps toward organizing a new government hit a snag Wednesday when a leading candidate for prime minister, Dr. Hussain al-Shahristani, took himself out of the running.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, tasked with choosing members of the new government, said in a statement released by his spokesman in New York that al-Shahristani "himself clarified that he would prefer to serve his country in other ways."

Al-Shahristani, a Canadian and British-educated nuclear scientist, spent years in Abu Ghraib prison after he says he refused to work on nuclear weapons. He escaped during the 1991 Gulf War and made his way to Jordan.

Brahimi hopes to put together a new government by the end of the month -- only four weeks before the administration is due to take office.

Meanwhile, efforts to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure were dealt a blow Wednesday when masked gunmen killed two technicians from a Russian energy firm as they headed to work at a power station. Their company said it would evacuate all staff from Iraq.

The attack on employees of Russia's Interenergoservis company was the third on Russian workers in Iraq since last month. The latest ambush occurred as the company bus was approaching the Dora power station in southwestern Baghdad. At least five people were wounded.

In Moscow, the executive director of the company, Alexander Rybinsky, said Wednesday the firm would evacuate all its staff from Iraq.

The Russian Foreign Ministry blamed the deteriorating situation on the failure of the occupation authority "to guarantee the necessary security."

U.S. officials have warned of an upsurge in attacks by insurgents seeking to prevent the establishment of a sovereign Iraqi government. The Americans hope that once Iraqis realize that they now wield genuine power in their country, the steam will go out of the insurgency.

However, attacks on infrastructure targets have stepped up in recent weeks. Bombings along key oil pipelines in northern and southern Iraq have resulted in temporary cutbacks in the export of petroleum -- the key to reviving Iraq's economy.

Elsewhere, three Iraqis were killed and nine were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded Wednesday in southwest Baghdad, the U.S. command said. Two of those killed and one of the wounded were believed to have been trying to set the bomb, the command said without elaborating.

A roadside bomb exploded Wednesday on Baghdad's Tahreer Square near a main bridge across the Tigris River, damaging a U.S. Army vehicle. There was no word on casualties.

In Baqouba, about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, five people were killed and seven others wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near a convoy that included the city's police chief, who escaped injury.

Associated Press correspondent Hamza Hendawi contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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