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Rebel Cleric Says His Forces Will Leave Mosque

Sadr calls for talks on a departure plan. Leery U.S. and Iraqi officials see his proposal as a bid to buy time to reinforce his fighters in Najaf.

August 19, 2004|Henry Chu and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr announced Wednesday that he would accept demands to vacate Najaf's Imam Ali Mosque and disarm his militia but insisted on further negotiations to work out how such a plan would be implemented.

The surprise announcement came just hours after Iraq's interim defense minister warned that U.S. and Iraqi forces were on the verge of mounting an all-out assault to eject Sadr and hundreds of his armed supporters from the shrine, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites.

The cleric's offer was greeted with skepticism by some who considered it a stalling tactic and with hope by others who called it a starting point for renewed peace talks between Sadr and the government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

"This is an entrance to negotiations," Jalil Shammari, a member of the Dawa Party, said at a conference in Baghdad that named an interim national assembly Wednesday. The four-day conference, where 100 members of the interim National Council were chosen, spent much time discussing the situation in Najaf.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Condoleezza Rice quote -- An article in Thursday's Section A about the situation in Najaf, Iraq, quoted national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, who was interviewed on Fox News Channel and CNN. The quote that appeared was from her interview with Fox.

"A delegation from the government will go to Najaf, or a delegation will come from Najaf to the government to start the negotiations, which we hope will end the crisis," Shammari said.

In a statement released late Wednesday, the Iraqi Defense Ministry did not say directly whether Allawi's office would reopen talks. A previous attempt at negotiations collapsed Saturday after barely 24 hours.

Instead, the statement reiterated the government's demand that Sadr and his Al Mahdi militiamen lay down their weapons and return the mosque to state control. "After that, we will halt all the decisions we've made with regard to Muqtada Sadr and his followers," the statement said, without elaborating.

In Najaf -- where clashes flared even after Sadr issued his offer -- U.S. military planners said they had no plans to scale back or change direction unless instructed by the Iraqi government. Fighting throughout the day Wednesday injured or killed at least 29 people, including four children, Najaf health officials said. One U.S. Marine was also killed, officials said.

Both U.S. and Iraqi officials are leery that Sadr, a shrewd tactician with a history of accepting and reneging on such agreements, merely wants to buy time to regroup and reinforce his fighters.

"We're still trying to figure out what it all means," said Maj. Bob Pizzitola, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.

The Bush administration reacted cautiously to Sadr's offer. "I don't think we can trust al-Sadr," said national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. "We have seen many, many times al-Sadr assume or say he is going to accept certain terms and then it turns out not to be the case." Rice spoke in television interviews on Fox and CNN.

On Tuesday, Sadr had refused to meet a high-profile delegation dispatched by the national conference to propose a way out of the violence in Najaf, which has claimed scores, perhaps hundreds, of lives since it broke out Aug. 5.

Kept waiting in the besieged Imam Ali Mosque for three hours, the group conveyed its message to Sadr's aides but gave up on seeing the cleric, returning to the Iraqi capital late in the night with its written communique still in hand.

Hours later, the conference ruled out trying for another meeting. Separately, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan told reporters Wednesday that Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. forces, were ready to raid the shrine -- possibly even later in the day -- although there was little evidence of activity or a large mobilization at the American military base outside Najaf.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Sadr sent word to the conference that he had agreed to its peace proposal, at least in principle. In exchange for leaving the mosque and giving up their weapons, Sadr and his followers would be granted amnesty and encouraged to turn their guerrilla movement into a political organization.

According to a letter read out to the national gathering, Sadr said his decision was an effort "to stop the bloodshed in Iraq and to build a new Iraq, which needs the efforts of everyone." If the plan falls apart, "responsibility for failure of the negotiations will be on everybody," warned a separate letter from Sadr's office in Baghdad.

But how such proposals are to be carried out -- especially the demand to disarm -- has been the sticking point that has unraveled previous agreements with Sadr, including a deal reached in the spring to end a similar uprising. Then, Sadr agreed to lay down arms, only to wind up stockpiling more.

Over the weekend, the cleric's aides said he was again prepared for his militia to give up its weapons, "except for self-defense."

Since the U.S. invaded Iraq last year, none of the country's known militias is believed to have disarmed, including the Shiite militant group Badr Brigade, despite pledges to do so.

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