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Radical Iraqi cleric ready to disarm, al-Sadr aides say
NAJAF, Iraq -- U.S. forces suspended a major offensive against militants in Najaf on Friday, and aides to Muqtada al-Sadr told Iraqi negotiators that radical Shiite cleric was prepared to disarm his followers in exchange for a list of demands including an American withdrawal from the holy city and amnesty for all his fighters.
The negotiations to end nine days of clashes in Najaf came as al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia appeared to stop most attacks in the city.
Before the pause in the fighting, aides to the cleric said al-Sadr was slightly injured early Friday, suffering shrapnel wounds to the face, chest and shoulder as he met with followers near the revered Imam Ali Shrine, where many of the militants were hiding. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he could not confirm that al-Sadr was wounded.
U.S. troops and Iraqi officials want to ensure that any new truce would eliminate the flaws of the previous agreements, including one that ended a two-month uprising in early June. Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia repeatedly violated that cease-fire, shooting at police and burying caches of weapons in Najaf's vast cemetery and using the time to regroup, according to U.S. officials and witnesses.
In Washington, Powell said he hoped the insurgent leader would respond "in due course" to charges placed against him by Iraqi authorities. An Iraqi judge has released an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with the death of a moderate Shiite leader, Abdul Maid al-Khoel, in April 2003, two days after the fall of Baghdad. Al-Sadr denies any role in the murder.
Powell denounced al-Sadr and his militia as outlaws and said U.S. forces were "squeezing" Najaf in an effort to end the fighting.
U.S. officials were not involved in Friday's talks, Iraqi officials said. Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie and Defense Minister Hazem Shalan were among the officials negotiating with al-Sadr's aides.
One of the cleric's assistants, Ahmed al-Shaibany, described the talks as "serious and positive, but difficult."
Another, Sheik Ali Smeisim, said al-Sadr wanted a U.S. withdrawal from Najaf, the freeing of all Mahdi Army fighters in detention and an amnesty for the militants, among other demands, in exchange for his disarming his followers and ending the fighting.
Despite the talks, al-Sadr lashed out at the United States, which he said was intent on "occupying the whole world." The fiery sermon was read on his behalf during Friday prayers at the Kufa Mosque near Najaf.
"The presence of occupation in Iraq has made our country an unbearable hell," he said, calling on Iraqis to rebel, "because I will not allow another Saddam-like government again."
Najaf, which had rattled with explosions and gunfire since Aug. 5, was quiet by Friday afternoon. U.S. tanks were seen pulling back from some streets, and no U.S. or Iraqi forces were visible in the city center. The U.S. military said it was maintaining a loose cordon around the Old City, the cemetery and the Imam Ali Shrine.
The Americans had announced the start of a major offensive to rout the insurgents Thursday, and the fighting in the city had threatened to infuriate Iraq's Shiite majority.
"We do not in any way wish to get involved with the mosque," Powell said. "It's a very holy place for all Shia."
The U.S. military said it suspended offensive operations at 7 a.m. Friday because of the truce talks.
"We are allowed to engage the enemy only in self defense and long enough to break contact," said U.S. Maj. Bob Pizzitola. "That was a blanket order for everybody."
"Hopefully the talks will go well and everything will be resolved peacefully," he said.
Despite the tacit cease-fire, Iraqis held demonstrations Friday in support of al-Sadr in cities across the country. In Baghdad, thousands of protesters, including some police officers, gathered outside the fortified enclave housing the U.S. Embassy and government offices and prayed in the street.
Meanwhile, a series of airstrikes Friday in the volatile Sunni city of Fallujah killed eight people and wounded 16 others, said Abdel Wahab Ahmed from Fallujah hospital.
The U.S. military did not immediately comment, but U.S. forces have repeatedly hit the militant stronghold 40 miles west of Baghdad with airstrikes.
Also Friday, the new U.N. envoy to Iraq arrived in Baghdad to set up the international body's first official presence here since a series of deadly bombings forced it out last year.
Ashraf Jehangir Qazi's primary task is to help Iraqis establish a constitutionally elected government by Dec. 31, 2005. He met Friday with interim President Ghazi al-Yawer and interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and appealed for a peaceful resolution to the Najaf crisis.
The violence in Najaf has spread to other Shiite communities in Iraq.
In the southern city of Basra, militants briefly kidnapped British journalist James Brandon and threatened to kill him if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf. He was freed after al-Sadr's aides condemned the kidnapping.
Brandon, 23, a freelance reporter, was abducted Thursday night when a group of masked gunmen stormed the Diafa Hotel and pulled him from his room. They beat him, threatened him and pretended they were about to execute him, pointing an unloaded gun at his head and pulling the trigger, he said.
They sent out a video Friday morning showing him scared and bare chested with a bandage around his head, but released him at al-Sadr's local office in the afternoon.
"They just told me they realized I was a journalist and they said I was going to be let go," Brandon told The Associated Press. "I didn't quite believe it until it actually happened."
Before Thursday, the U.S. military has estimated that hundreds of insurgents had been killed in the Najaf fighting since it began last week, but the militants dispute the figure. Six Americans have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers, it said.
Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has called on all sides to end the crisis quickly, was in stable condition at a hospital outside London on Friday following a procedure to unblock a coronary artery, his office said. The 73-year-old cleric had an angioplasty.
Associated Press writer Abdul Hussein al-Obeidi contributed to this report.