NAJAF, Iraq — Shiite leaders made a desperate effort Monday to salvage a truce between U.S. forces and militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, even as American military commanders declared that the insurgents had failed to honor the 4-day-old cease-fire.
Despite the truce, weekend clashes killed dozens of militiamen and two American gunners, the first U.S. casualties in the area in six weeks.
U.S. commanders said Sadr had not kept his promise to withdraw some fighters from Najaf and Kufa and that his militia had taken advantage of the cease-fire to fortify its positions for future battles in the holy cities.
In their latest effort to end the clashes, Shiite leaders in Baghdad called on the U.S. to halt "aggressive patrolling" in both cities and on Sadr's fighters to withdraw from holy sites.
U.S. military officials said they were prepared to restart negotiations. "At the end of the day, we'd rather solve this peacefully and quietly than with a lot of noise and a lot of weapons," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "We've got to stop the fighting because it is leading nowhere."
The U.S. is seeking to reduce hostilities in various parts of Iraq before it hands power to an interim government June 30.
Sadr, a Shiite Muslim cleric who leads a militia known as the Al Mahdi army, has vowed to resist the U.S. occupation. For weeks, his fighters have clashed with soldiers in Baghdad's Sadr City slum as well as in Najaf and Kufa.
Last week, U.S. military officials accepted a deal reached by the militia and moderate Shiite leaders. The agreement called for Sadr to relinquish control of government buildings and send some of his armed followers home. In return, U.S. forces agreed to pull back to a few small bases in Najaf and Kufa and gradually be replaced by Iraqi police.
Parts of the deal began to unravel when about 100 Iraqi police officers who arrived to replace American soldiers promptly packed up and abandoned their posts, saying they were not provided with adequate pay or supplies.
Since the agreement, U.S. military officials report that skirmishes in Najaf's city center have diminished, some shops have reopened and pedestrians have returned to some streets.
But soldiers on patrol have drawn heavy mortar attacks and gunfire when they ventured near Kufa and the Imam Ali Mosque, a revered Shiite shrine in southern Najaf.
"There is definitely a militia presence in both cities," said 1st Lt. Colin Cremin, company commander of the base responsible for a large portion of Najaf. "They've moved their troops toward the holy sites and set up pretty heavy defenses. They are dug in now. It was more a chance for them to consolidate than a truce."
Sunday night, U.S. officials said Sadr's fighters had ambushed a patrol with small-arms fire. When the fighting ended early Monday, two U.S. gunners had been killed atop their tanks.
"It's like losing your brother," said Lt. Col. Pat White, commanding officer of a U.S. base located between Najaf and Kufa. "It's gonna hurt the troops for a while, but they gotta go back out there and start again."
Hospital officials said at least one Iraqi was killed and eight were injured. Sadr's militia often avoids taking its casualties to government hospitals for fear of arrest.
In Baghdad, a group of Shiite leaders said they were close to getting both sides to end the clashes.
"There is an agreement between the Shia House and Sadr's office to defuse the crisis," said Adnan Zurufi, the U.S.-appointed governor of Najaf. "We are waiting for an official response from the American side."
The new proposal appeared to be a reprise of Thursday's deal.
Zurufi said U.S. officials were expected to agree to not let American soldiers enter "sacred areas" of the holy cities. Instead, another attempt will be made to have those areas patrolled by Iraqi police.
The governor said the agreement also called for American military officials to drop their demand that Sadr surrender to face criminal charges of plotting a rival's slaying.
Kimmitt said the U.S. was using negotiation rather than force. He repeated a recent U.S. position that Sadr must face Iraqi justice and that his militia must disband -- in contrast to the stated U.S. objectives of "killing or capturing" Sadr and "crushing" his militia.
"Our objectives have not changed," Kimmitt said. "But the way we are intending to achieve those objectives may have changed.
"Rather than use simply military force, we are now also exploring the use of political methods and diplomatic methods to try to use Iraqi leadership to be part of the solution," he said.
As the U.S. attempted to quell Sadr's rebellion, an explosion that killed at least four people in central Baghdad served as a reminder that violence might increase as the hand-over of sovereignty approaches.
About 20 bystanders were also injured by the blast in the residential Harithiya district, which authorities said came from a Mercedes-Benz packed with explosives.