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New Cease-Fire Offered as Heavy Fighting Continues

The U.S. seeks to quell the violence in Najaf and Kufa. But the plan depends upon an Iraqi police force that won't be ready for months.

June 02, 2004|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq reportedly proposed a new cease-fire for the cities of Najaf and Kufa on Tuesday, even as American forces continued heavy battles with militants in the area and military commanders said the Iraqi police forces needed for the plan were months away at the earliest.

Coalition authorities wrote a letter proposing that fighters affiliated with the anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr withdraw from the two cities within a 72-hour period, Najaf Gov. Adnan Zurufi said.

Zurufi said the letter promised that, in return, U.S. forces would "reposition" their troops in Najaf and Kufa, stay away from Shiite holy sites in the two cities and patrol in partnership with Iraqi security forces in other neighborhoods. The letter did not specify when the 72-hour period would begin.

But a U.S. military commander in Najaf continued to insist that Sadr disarm his Al Mahdi militia and turn himself in to face charges that he was involved in the killing of a rival Shiite leader last year, two long-standing demands of the coalition.

The Army commander of the base nearest Kufa, Lt. Col. Pat White of the 1st Armored Division, also said that the 60-member police force in Najaf was insufficient -- in training and in number -- to carry out patrols with American troops. Although at least 200 Iraqis have applied to join the Najaf and Kufa police forces, it will be at least two months before the first candidates complete training, and possibly much longer before the force is capable of providing any real security, said an American police expert in Najaf.

Integration of Iraqi officers into U.S. patrols will begin in July, if numbers and training permit, White said.

Zurufi said on Iraqi television Tuesday that Sadr's militia had accepted the proposal and would begin withdrawing today from the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf. No representative of the militia confirmed the report, however, and fighting continued Tuesday night.

A representative of Sadr's office in Najaf, Sheik Ahmed Shibani, said Shiite leaders had not yet discussed the content of the letter but were likely to have objections, according to Associated Press. Coalition representatives in Najaf refused to comment on the proposal.

The proposal's announcement coincides with an ongoing police recruitment effort in Najaf. About 940 of the region's 1,000 police officers abandoned their positions when Sadr's militia invaded the holy cities in April, according to military officials. Officials said the force would have to be restaffed to previous levels to provide effective security. An Army officer estimated that it would take several months to find sufficient candidates for training.

But training alone may not be enough. "We have a leadership problem, not a training problem," said Maj. Todd Walsh, a commander based in Najaf. "We'll have to remain here until the Iraqi leadership issue among police is solved."

Establishing the leadership necessary for Iraqi training and police work to become self-sufficient can take "at least a year, if you are building on a weak base," said Gerry Poradzisz, a Chicago police officer advising Iraqis in Najaf.

Iraqis thronged U.S. troops visiting Najaf's main police station Tuesday, most seeking to become police officers. But the limitations of the current police force were demonstrated when military officers asked Iraqi policemen to disperse the crowds, a task they were unable to complete without U.S. assistance. Police recruits leaving the station wrapped their heads in scarves to avoid recognition.

The U.S. soldiers were present for a buy-back program that netted more than 100 weapons, Walsh said.

Later Tuesday, U.S. military forces battled fighters believed to be aligned with Sadr. In a rare daytime operation, about 100 American soldiers accompanied by 13 tanks and other armored vehicles moved toward Kufa's main mosque in order to destroy trenches and fortifications used by insurgents and to scout for militia positions.

At dusk, U.S. forces came under attack as loudspeakers from the mosque called on residents to join the fight. The Americans returned fire with large-caliber mounted guns, machine guns and tanks. Amid a warren of alleyways bordered by relatively affluent houses behind brick walls and palm groves, militants launched mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attacks at American forces.

The setting sun dropped as all except for a few dogs abandoned the roads leading into Kufa, and surrounding fields were lighted by U.S. tracer bullets.

U.S. troops sustained no casualties, but at least 10 insurgents were killed.

When the Americans returned to their base, crowds of Iraqis sat along the roadside as near as two blocks from where tanks had been firing, watching the spectacle and waving to passing troops.

Times staff writer Laura King and special correspondent Salar Jaff in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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