Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 19, 2004; 9:49 AM
BAGHDAD, Aug. 19--Negotiations over the embattled city of Najaf took a new and complicated turn Thursday when an official of Iraq's interim government issued fresh demands to be met by rebellious Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, accompanied by warnings of an imminent military offensive at the shrine where Sadr's militia is holed up.
The demands, announced by Minister of State Qasim Dawood a news conference he gave in Baghdad even as fighting intensified close to the shrine in Najaf, went beyond those put forward earlier this week by the Iraqi national conference, which had already produced a positive, albeit tentative, response from Sadr.
The new conditions included a surrender of weapons by Sadr's Mahdi Army and a promise not to engage in violence in the future -- neither of which were explicitly sought by the national conference.
In a phone interview, Sadr's spokesman, Ahmed Shaibani, immediately rejected the new demands, suggesting they were the personal opinions of Dawood.
Underscoring what he saw as an apparent divergence between the interim government and the separate conference of political leaders, Shaibani said Sadr would only deal with the conference representing the "opinion of the people."
Meanwhile, the violence continued in Najaf with fighting between U.S. forces and Sadr's Mahdi Army in the vicinity of the of Najaf's main religious shrine as well as a mortar attack by Sadr's insurgents on a Najaf police station that wire services said had claimed at least seven lives. U.S. forces were reportedly also moving through Sadr's stronghold suburb of Baghdad, Sadr City.
The national conference, while part of the plan for Iraq's transition to democratic self-rule, is not an operating government body. It was convened originally to choose an interim representative assembly as a check and balance on the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Before it turned its attention to that task, however, it initiated negotiations with Sadr designed to head off a bloody showdown at one of Islam's holiest places--the sacred Imam Ali shrine in Najaf.
Sadr had signaled Wednesday that he would accept a plea from Iraqi political leaders at the conference to dissolve his militia, vacate the shrine and join in the Iraqi political process but he asked for further negotiations with Iraq's interim government to work out details, according to a letter from Sadr's office that was delivered Wednesday.
Shaibani said Thursday that the cleric was ready to hand over the Imam Ali shrine to religious leaders. "We cannot just give it to anybody," he said, stating that he was awaiting some sort of announcement of a committee "to receive the shrine."
Sadr's offer did not specify any conditions, but it also did not indicate when he planned the pullout from the shrine and the dissolution of his militia.
U.S. and Iraqi officials continued to express skepticism about whether Sadr would follow through, particularly with the pledge to disband his militia. Sadr has agreed several times in the past to peace deals with Iraqi officials, only to renege on them later.
"We're taking this with a big grain of salt," said a U.S. official familiar with the Sadr confrontation. "He's made a lot of promises before and he's broken all of them."
"I would be very cautious in accepting it as face value," said a senior diplomat from a nation with forces in Iraq. "A lot of people are scratching their heads and wondering whether the letter sent to the conference [by Sadr] meant anything and if so what it meant."
Sadr's offer came in a letter delivered Wednesday by Jalil Shamari, a delegate to the political conference and a member of the Dawa party, a prominent Shiite organization that is not affiliated with Sadr. Shamari, who told reporters Wednesday that he had received the letter from Sadr's representatives in Baghdad earlier in the day, said the offer was "an entrance to negotiation."
"A delegation from the government will go to Najaf or a delegation will come from Najaf to the government to start the negotiations, which we hope will end the crisis," he said Wednesday.
Iraq's Defense Ministry responded to Sadr's letter by ordering members of his militia, the Mahdi Army, to lay down their weapons and leave the shrine immediately. The ministry said militiamen would be granted amnesty only if they ended their rebellion in Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad, and other cities.
At the political conference, Sadr's offer was greeted warmly by the more than 1,000 delegates, whose efforts to resolve the crisis in Najaf dominated a meeting convened to select an interim national assembly.
Sadr's spokesmen Shaibani had warned then that withdrawal from the shrine would require "some preparation."
Even if Sadr disbands his militia, keeping its adherents disarmed is likely to be a long and complicated process. U.S. officials say many, if not most, members of the Mahdi Army are young men who joined up not out of religious fervor but because the militia offered them a job and a chance to vent their anger at the U.S. occupation. International experts on militias, including U.N. officials, have suggested that financial incentives might be needed to encourage compliance.
The news of Sadr's letter broke at the conference Wednesday hours after Defense Minister Hazim Shalan said that the cleric had only hours to vacate the shrine in Najaf. "They have a chance," Shalan told reporters after meeting local officials in the holy city.
"In the next few hours they have to surrender themselves and their weapons. We are in the process of completing all our military preparations," he said. "We will teach them a lesson they will never forget."
Sadr's aides condemned the threat. "The statements of the so-called defense minister are not suited with what the delegation came with," Abdul Hadi Darraji, Sadr's spokesman in Baghdad, told al-Arabiya television. "There is a clear accord from the side of Sayyid Sadr. I think that the statements of the defense minister are personal statements." Sayyid is a title of respect.
Shalan had spent Tuesday closeted with senior military commanders just outside Najaf, poring over plans for military operations in the city. The plans were to be presented Thursday to the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz.
Overnight Wednesday, one Marine was killed and another was wounded by mortar shells fired from beside the shrine into the nearby Valley of Peace cemetery, where U.S. forces continued to engage militiamen in sporadic clashes.
U.S. commanders responded by firing a 155mm howitzer toward the shells' point of origin -- closer to the mosque complex than had been previously authorized for artillery fire.
"That was a first," said Maj. Bob Pizzitola, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, which is fighting in the cemetery with Marine support.
"It was closer than I thought they'd allow, but it was safe," said Maj. David Holahan of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which has been commanding the fight in Najaf.
Meanwhile, M1-A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles continued to roam Najaf's old city, a district of houses and shops along narrow streets south and east of the shrine. Combat was sometimes heavy, witnesses said, as the 1st Cavalry's 7th Regiment sought to assert its presence in the quarter.
Twenty-four people were reported wounded or dead before noon Wednesday, including six women and four children, said Falah Muhanna, the head of Najaf's Health Directorate.
Iraq's interim government has emphasized that any military move to push Sadr's forces out of the shrine would be led by Iraqi forces. But U.S. armor, helicopters and warplanes in recent days have ventured close to the sacred site.
"As for entering the shrine, it will be 100 percent Iraqis," Shalan said. "Our sons of the National Guards are well-trained for the breaking-in operation and it will be easy within hours."
Elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. military announced it was deploying reinforcements to put down a rebellion near the city of Kut, southeast of Baghdad. In earlier fighting there, four civilians were killed and four injured when they were caught in crossfire between the U.S. forces and insurgents, according to a military statement.