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Sadr Army Holds Fire but Stays On at Two Holy Sites

Najaf governor claims cease-fire is working, but coalition officials deny a deal was made. Some officials believe fighters are regrouping.

June 08, 2004|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — Two beleaguered cities in southern Iraq remained quiet Monday and U.S. military officials couldn't agree on what was causing the lull in clashes with rebels loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Insurgents remained in control of two holy sites about 72 hours after an Iraqi governor asked U.S. forces to partially withdraw from Najaf and Kufa, halting six weeks of fighting. Iraqi police appeared to tolerate the insurgents' presence in the cities.

"This is a cease-fire, agreed to by the Americans and the fighters," said Adnan Zurufi, the U.S.-appointed governor of Najaf.

Army Brig. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, a commander of the 1st Armored Division stationed in Najaf and Kufa, said: "There is no cease-fire. We're simply following the instructions of the governor."

Hertling said Sadr's militia, known as the Al Mahdi army, "are on their way out."

Regional commanders, though, disagreed.

"The Mahdi army is sticking around, just waiting until we are gone," said Army Lt. Col. Pat White, commander of the base nearest Kufa. "Sadr's goals haven't changed. This just gives him a chance to catch his breath."

Observers said the recent calm was a face-saving gesture that allowed militants to avoid one-sided firefights and permitted the U.S.-led coalition to claim stability before the June 30 return of sovereignty. But the situation in which insurgents control mosques and intimidate Iraqi security forces remains unresolved, one observer said.

Fighting broke out in April when Sadr's militia took control of Najaf and Kufa, seizing police stations and two of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. Deadly fighting continued until Friday, when Zurufi asked U.S. forces to end patrols near the mosques and gave insurgents 72 hours to leave the city.

Three days later, up to 1,000 insurgents remained in the cities, according to U.S. military officers.

Zurufi and local security officials said they would not confront Sadr's fighters. "We are not strong enough to arrest them. All we can do is ask them to not display their weapons," the governor said.

About 95% of Najaf's 600 policemen have been recruited in the last week, the Najaf police chief said, and only half have guns.

Since the U.S. pullback, the cities have been quiet except for an explosion Monday at the Kufa mosque. Witnesses said the blast occurred when an ammunition cache caught fire, but fighters in the mosque blamed the United States. American military commanders said they had not sent troops or fired artillery at the site since Friday.

Iraqi officials said insurgents would use the calm to rebuild their forces.

"They will continue fighting," said Emad Zurufi, chief security advisor to the governor. "They are waiting, building up weapons and awaiting orders."

U.S. military officials believe this lull may last until sovereignty is returned on June 30.

"Some intelligence tells us foreign fighters are moving in here and regrouping," said a regional military commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Sadr might be waiting until after June 30. After that it's out of our hands, and through force and intimidation, Sadr can continue to exert himself."

Iraqi police have begun patrols near mosques, replacing U.S. troops.

Residents, however, said militiamen had been planting land mines in the cemeteries surrounding the mosques. "What do the police do?" said Qassim Juwad, a Najaf resident. "The Mahdi militiamen do not let them approach the Imam Ali shrine or the area surrounding it."

The calm also allows the U.S.-led coalition to claim stability, Iraqi leaders say.

"Every time we wanted to use a military solution, we were stopped by the coalition," said security advisor Zurufi. "There is a feeling that appearing peaceful is more important than having peace."

U.S. military officials said they had drawn up plans to invade the Kufa mosque last month, but were stopped from implementing them. Coalition officials have backed down from their plan to "kill or capture" Sadr and "destroy" the Al Mahdi army for a truce proposal that called on both sides to withdraw.

Sources within the coalition and Iraqi security forces have questioned whether Sadr controls insurgents in the cities.

A statement released by a spokesman for the Al Mahdi army, Sheik Juwad Koreishi, said Sadr had instructed fighters to partially withdraw.

"Now we'll see if these are Sadr's fighters," said Gov. Zurufi. "Our intelligence says they are foreign fighters, perhaps Syrians, perhaps fighters from Fallouja."

U.S. military officials agree that Iraqis have taken over the problem, and that the American forces are ready to leave.

"We've lost soldiers here, for what?" said Maj. Todd Walsh, a commander at the U.S. base nearest Kufa. "A real solution can only come from the Iraqis."

But Gov. Zurufi said he was "very concerned about who is here and what will happen after June 30. But I will not call the Americans. We must solve this ourselves."

Brig. Gen. Hertling, however, disagreed.

"I'm not worried," he said. "There's not that many insurgents left -- we've killed a lot of them. If things get bad, the governor will ask us to help."

Duhigg is assigned to the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division in the Najaf area. A special correspondent in Najaf contributed to this report.

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