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The World | THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Iraqi Premier Fails to Stop Najaf Combat

Allawi visits the holy city, but his plea to Muqtada Sadr's militia has little effect. Militants in Karbala apparently seize an Iranian envoy.

August 09, 2004|Edmund Sanders and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

NAJAF, Iraq — Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and top U.S. military officials made an emergency visit here Sunday to map out plans to quell the four-day uprising in this holy city, but they had to be hustled out of town amid renewed attacks by followers of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Allawi arrived on a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter and traveled in a convoy of a dozen armored vehicles to the city center, where he met with regional Iraqi officials and U.S. military commanders. He demanded that Sadr's fighters lay down their weapons and leave the holy city, but his plea apparently fell on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, other militants claimed Sunday to have abducted a top Iranian diplomat. A videotape broadcast on an Arabic-language satellite channel showed a bearded captive identified as Iran's consul in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. The kidnappers accused him of inciting sectarian strife in a nation deeply divided between its resurgent Shiite Muslim majority and the traditionally dominant Sunni minority. Iran's Foreign Ministry confirmed that the consul was missing.

Violence also continued in other cities, with the Iraqi Health Ministry reporting four dead and seven injured in clashes between Sadr's supporters and Iraqi and U.S. forces in Baghdad. This morning, at least two people were killed and 13 injured in Balad Ruz, east of Baghdad, when a car bomb exploded at the house of a top official of Diyala province. He was injured and taken to a U.S. base for treatment.

In Najaf, Allawi spent an hour at the governor's compound discussing ways to end the violence with Gen. George W. Casey, the top military officer in Iraq, and Gov. Adnan Zurfi. Allawi urged U.S. and Iraqi forces to crack down on Sadr's militia.

"There is no negotiation with any militia that bears arms against Iraq and the Iraqi people," Allawi told reporters after the meeting. "Those armed should leave the holy sites ... as well as leave their weapons and abide by the law."

Underscoring the prime minister's get-tough stance, the Iraqi government announced Sunday that it would reinstate the death penalty, including for cases of terrorism.

Under the new law, which has not yet come into effect, capital punishment can be imposed for "kidnapping, premeditated murder, and murder in a savage way, drug crimes, robbery and stealing by using a weapon, and crimes that harm the national security of Iraq," Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said.

"There are robberies, killings, kidnappings and complete chaos and unrest," Ibrahim said in an interview. "If this law would not be issued now, when would it be issued? Iraq is passing through very hard circumstances and instability."

Neither Ibrahim nor other officials would say whether the law might apply to ousted President Saddam Hussein.

"This law was issued not because of Saddam Hussein," Ibrahim said. "Saddam Hussein has nothing to do with it. It was just because of the difficult security situation and the spread of criminal and terrorist crimes."

The director of the Al Hakim Hospital in Najaf said Sunday evening that since the fighting erupted Thursday, there had been 21 deaths among civilians and Iraqi security forces, and 87 people had been wounded. U.S. officials said Friday that an estimated 300 militants had died in the first two days of fighting, but admitted uncertainty about that figure. Sadr's aides said the toll was closer to three dozen.

It remained unclear whether the government intended to arrest Sadr. Iraqi police raided Sadr's house Saturday, but he was not home.

Asked if the government planned to arrest Sadr, Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Naqib, who accompanied Allawi in Najaf, said, "We'll see." U.S. officials said they were leaving the matter to the Iraqis.

"We are not actively hunting him," said Lt. Col John Mayer, commander of the ground combat troops in Najaf.

As the talks continued, Sadr's Al Mahdi army launched a bold daytime strike against Najaf's main police station, half a mile from the governor's compound. Police quickly called for U.S. assistance, and American troops responded with Humvees, helicopters and mortar strikes.

Also as the visit occurred, fighting resumed in a cemetery near the Imam Ali shrine. Sadr's followers have been using the shrine and the cemetery to launch their attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Marines cleared the cemetery briefly Saturday but withdrew amid heavy mortar attacks.

Units of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division launched a new assault early Sunday and faced fighting throughout the day. Militants pounded Army positions with more than 60 mortar rounds, most of them coming from a plaza adjacent to the Imam Ali Mosque.

"We're on the offensive right now," Mayer said. "We have a series of attacks designed to locate and destroy the enemy." A Times special correspondent in Najaf, who cannot be named for his safety, was taken by Iraqi soldiers to a parked minibus and shown the body of a soldier who had been beheaded.

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