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The Conflict in Iraq

Sadr Forces Edge Toward a Deal to Exit Najaf Shrine

A spokesman eases conditions for handing control to Iraq's leading Shiite cleric. The U.S. attacks the outer ring of the site.

August 24, 2004|T. Christian Miller and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

NAJAF, Iraq — With fighting raging and signs of support fading, forces loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr on Monday appeared to renew their interest in a negotiated end to the siege of one of Islam's holiest shrines.

Spokesmen for Sadr said they were willing to be flexible on some of their demands before turning control of the Imam Ali Mosque over to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's top Shiite religious leader.

A high-ranking Sadr aide, Sheik Ahmed Shibani, said the rebels were willing to let security at the mosque be handled by other religious figures. That view signaled a change from the demand that Sadr's Al Mahdi army guard the shrine. The sacred site is believed to contain the remains of Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad.

In remarks to reporters early Monday, Shibani also seemed to back away from the demand that Sistani conduct an inventory of the shrine's valuables before a hand-over. Sistani had refused to allow his representatives to enter the shrine until the militants left. Abu Thir Kinany, another Sadr spokesman, warned against intervention by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

"A religious committee must be formed to handle this great, sacred shrine," Kinany said in an interview on Al Jazeera satellite television. "We don't trust this government and consider it a source of terrorism."

Monday night, U.S. forces launched a three-pronged attack on the outer ring of the mosque area, destroying Al Mahdi targets within 200 yards of the shrine. In the process, Army and Marine units crossed the ring road, which encircles the mosque neighborhood, for the first time.

U.S. troops approached the shrine area from the north, south and west, pounding targets with AC-130 warplanes, Hellfire missiles and tank rounds.

Resistance was heaviest to the south of the mosque in the Old City, where soldiers attacked a complex of buildings. At least two large fires burned until the early morning, and repeated explosions echoed throughout the city.

In the nearby cemetery -- the scene of many recent battles -- U.S. tanks pounded a building and barrier wall that military officials believed militiamen had used for cover. The wall had been rigged with explosives set to detonate when the Americans approached, officials said.

Unlike previous nights, opposition in the cemetery and west of the shrine was light, perhaps a signal that the militia was softening.

"I think they're tired, but I don't think they've given up," said Army Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. He said the strikes were designed to further "squeeze the militia." Despite reports that Sadr's followers had removed their weapons from the shrine, military radar picked up a mortar attack originating there, officials said.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the Health Ministry reported Monday that 14 Iraqis were killed and 89 wounded during fighting in the previous 24 hours. One of the fatalities was a child in Najaf.

The standoff at the shrine has emerged as the first major test of authority for the interim Iraqi government, which is led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Any attempt to seize the shrine risks inflaming Iraq's majority Shiite population, which considers the site sacred. But Sadr's continuing defiance has made Allawi appear weak, alternating between threats of military action and pledges to avoid attacks on the shrine.

A deal in which Sadr handed control to Sistani, a far more eminent figure, would appear to allow both sides to save face. Sadr would avoid capitulating to the government as his forces pack up and leave.

Jaber Habib, a political scientist at Baghdad University, pointed to growing pressure on Allawi and Sadr to bring the crisis to a peaceful resolution. "The Iraqi people don't want more bloodshed," he said. "At the end of the day, you can't get a solution only with the military. You cannot only show muscles."

Also on Monday, freed U.S. journalist Micah Garen was in American hands at an undisclosed location in Iraq. A U.S. Embassy official said Garen, who was kidnapped this month in southern Iraq, had had two physical exams and was "in fine shape."

Sanders reported from Najaf and Miller from Baghdad.

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