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Iraq Issues Ultimatum as Militia Stays Put

August 20, 2004|David Holley and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

NAJAF, Iraq — Cleric Muqtada Sadr and his militia refused to budge from the Imam Ali Mosque here Thursday after the Iraqi government issued tough new demands on the conditions under which they would disarm and depart.

At an evening news conference in Baghdad, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi warned that time was running out for a peaceful solution to the fighting between Sadr's forces and Iraqi and U.S. troops that began two weeks ago.

"This is the final call for them to disarm, vacate the holy shrine, engage in political work and consider the interests of the homeland," Allawi said. "We need to have a solution soon."

The warning to the Shiite Muslim cleric came as fighting between his Al Mahdi militia and security forces continued in Najaf and Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. In the predawn hours today, U.S. warplanes bombed targets near the Najaf mosque, the blasts sending up an orange glow and billowing smoke.

Sadr had announced Wednesday that he would leave the mosque and disarm his militia, but he insisted on further negotiations to work out the terms.

In a midday announcement Thursday, Minister of State Kasim Daoud demanded that Sadr hold an internationally televised news conference personally announcing the dissolution, and that all armed men in the mosque be identified as they exited.

Daoud also said the question of whether Sadr would be arrested was up to Iraqi judicial authorities, not the government.

Sadr's aides promptly rejected those conditions, and Allawi issued his ultimatum.

Some residents near the mosque and in Najaf's Old City evacuated amid shelling by the U.S. and the militia.

Late Thursday evening, a statement said to be issued by Sadr was broadcast on Al Jazeera satellite television in which the cleric purportedly renewed an offer to turn the mosque over to top Shiite religious authorities but refused to disband his militia. The authenticity of the statement could not be immediately confirmed.

A couple of miles from the mosque, neighborhoods appeared normal, with families venturing out as they habitually do on Thursday nights.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, deadly fighting in Sadr City overnight Wednesday appeared to have taken the lives of more Sadr supporters than did the fighting in Najaf.

A U.S. officer said soldiers in his unit reported killing seven Iraqis armed with either rocket-propelled grenades or AK-47s. He did not have information on the casualty reports of other battalions participating in the attack.

"We have the initiative. We're killing a lot of fighters. They realize this," said Capt. Randall McCauley, an intelligence officer from Downers Grove, Ill.

Sadr City was calmer during daylight Thursday, but by evening there were sporadic explosions and burning tires on several streets. Many shops closed as U.S. tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles lined thoroughfares. Groups of young men congregated on street corners, some armed with AK-47s.

Makeshift roadblocks restricted access to most streets in this heavily Shiite, slumlike section of the capital, and some roads appeared to be riddled with improvised bombs, placed near the curbs or sometimes in the middle of the road with their tripwires visible. The bombs were made from foot-high cooking oil tins.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, a mortar shell struck the roof of the U.S. Embassy, slightly injuring two Americans, an embassy spokesman said.

Militants also attacked Iraqi oil facilities, setting a warehouse and offices on fire near the southern city of Basra and killing a security officer working for an oil company near the northern city of Kirkuk.

Late Thursday, a U.S. warplane bombed targets in the Sunni Muslim insurgent stronghold of Fallouja, 35 miles west of Baghdad.

At U.S. military bases in Najaf, top officials continued to plan for major operations against Sadr, but there was little sense that an invasion of the mosque was imminent.

Military officials said they were closely monitoring developments between the Iraqi government and Sadr representatives, talking as many as six times a day with representatives for Allawi, the prime minister.

"We're staying on the course we've been on unless told otherwise by the Iraqi government," said Capt. Carrie C. Batson, a spokeswoman for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

U.S. troops dropped a 500-pound bomb on a Sadr militia position in the Old City on Thursday afternoon, causing a thunderous explosion heard around Najaf.

Militants, meanwhile, fired three mortar rounds at the main Iraqi police station there, killing at least seven officers and wounding nearly three dozen. One of the shells landed on top of the building, injuring officers standing guard.

"It sprayed shrapnel across the roof," said Staff Sgt. William Trabucco of the 2nd Platoon, 66th Military Police Company.

Fighting continued this morning, with the city rocked by a series of explosions as AC-130 warplanes bombed targets west of the shrine.

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