(AP) NAJAF, Iraq – An Iraqi Cabinet minister issued an ultimatum to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Thursday, warning that Iraqi forces were poised to launch an offensive if he did not immediately disarm his militia and hand over its weapons.
The threat by Minister of State Qassim Dawoud came a day after the firebrand cleric agreed to a peace deal to end two weeks of fighting between U.S. and Iraqi troops and al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi militia forces, who are holed up in the revered Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.
The cleric also must sign a statement saying he will refrain from future violence and release all civilians and Iraqi security forces his militants have kidnapped. In addition, al-Sadr must hold a news conference to announce he is disbanding the Mahdi Army, Dawoud said.
“The military action has become imminent,” Dawoud told reporters. “If these conditions are not met, then the military solution will prevail.”
After hearing Dawoud’s threat, Sheik Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, a spokesman for al-Sadr in Baghdad, called for talks to quickly “stop the bloodbaths in the holy city of Najaf.”
“What we want is for the parties to sit down and cooperate. To ask a side, or the Sadrist movement, to disarm, I think is not logical and not right. They should rather sit around a negotiating table and determine what’s right and wrong,” he told Al-Arabiya television.
Explosions and gunfire could be heard Thursday in the streets of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Three U.S. tanks and two Humvees were parked about 400 yards from the shrine, about as close as U.S. forces have come to the holy site during the fighting.
Fighters from the Mahdi Army militia could be seen manning positions in narrow alleys of the Old City and outside the shrine compound. A clock on the compound’s outer wall, reportedly hit by shrapnel, was smoldering.
Fearful of the violence, few civilians ventured out and most stores, some damaged during the fighting, were closed.
Late Wednesday, al-Sadr sent a letter to Iraq (news – web sites)’s national conference gathering saying he would accept its peace plan to put down his arms, withdraw from the shrine and turn to politics in exchange for amnesty for his fighters. However, he wanted an end to the fighting before he complied and he wanted to negotiate how the plan would be implemented, his aides said.
The government on Thursday demanded he comply without any conditions, and Dawoud said he had already toured Najaf’s hospitals to ensure they were properly supplied to handle the casualties expected from a final offensive.
“We will take the military action to … end this abnormal phenomenon so that this phenomenon would be a lesson for all the outlaws” in Iraq, Dawoud told Al-Arabiya.
He also demanded al-Sadr disband several Mahdi Army courts he had set up to mete out punishments, including the death penalty and amputations.
In Washington, the Bush administration said al-Sadr needed to match words with deeds. “We have seen many, many times al-Sadr assume or say he is going to accept certain terms and then it turns out not to be the case,” said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (news – web sites).
The cease-fire agreement was announced at the National Conference in Baghdad, which had sent a delegation to negotiate with al-Sadr.
The four-day conference, a gathering of more than 1,000 prominent Iraqis that was seen as an important milestone on the country’s path to democracy.
It ended Wednesday with the selection of 81 members of a new National Council. The remaining 19 members will be drawn from members of the former U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council who were left out of the interim government.
The council, to sit next month, is supposed to act as a watchdog over the interim government until January elections.
As clashes in Najaf continued, Arab television station Al-Jazeera aired a video Thursday showing a militant group that called itself the Martyrs Brigade vowing to kill a missing Western journalist if U.S. forces do not leave Najaf within 48 hours. The authenticity of the tape could not be determined.
The video showed a man resembling missing journalist Micah Garen kneeling in front of five masked militants, who were armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Garen’s father and his fiancee were unavailable for comment.
According to witnesses, Garen and his Iraqi translator, Amir Doushi, were walking through a market in the southern city of Nasiriyah on Friday when they were seized by two armed men, police said. At the time of his abduction, Garen, 36, was working on a story about the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq, his fiance, Marie-Helene Carleton said.
The standoff in Najaf has increasingly infuriated the government, and Wednesday afternoon Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said he could send Iraqi forces to raid the shrine within hours. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued a statement accusing the militants of mining the area around the shrine.
Hours later, al-Sadr’s office sent a message to the conference, saying he would accept the gathering’s peace proposal.
The U.S. military says the clashes have killed hundreds of militants, though the militants deny that. Nine U.S. troops and at least 40 Iraqi police have been killed as well.
Clashes also have spread to Baghdad.
On Thursday, an Army spokesman said one soldier died when attackers fired on a U.S. patrol Wednesday in the east Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. The area has been the scene of ongoing firefights between U.S. forces and al-Sadr’s supporters, said Maj. Philip Smith. Another soldier was killed while patrolling the same area hours earlier, Smith said.
An explosion Thursday also hit the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy in central Baghdad, sending up a plume of gray smoke. Air raids sounded, but it was not immediately clear what caused the blast.
Two Marines assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were also killed Wednesday, the military said Thursday. One Marine was killed while conducting “security and stability operations” in Najaf, and the other died in a vehicle accident in Anbar province west of Baghdad.
As of Wednesday, 946 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
In the central city of Hillah, two Polish troops were killed and five were injured early Thursday in a car crash that followed an ambush by insurgents, said Col. Zdzislaw Gnatowski, spokesman for the Polish army chief of staff.
Early Thursday, unidentified attackers killed an Iraqi security officer working for the state-run Northern Oil Co., police said. Two other security officers were injured in the attack six miles from the northern city of Kirkuk, police Col. Sarhat Qadir said.
At the Abu Ghraib prison, which was the center of a scandal over allegations that American prison guards abused Iraqi detainees, U.S. military police shot and killed two of the detainees and wounded five others during a massive brawl Wednesday, the military said.
Several detainees attacked an inmate with rocks and tent poles in a fight that soon encompassed 200 people, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, the U.S. military’s spokesman for detention operations in Iraq. Abu Ghraib is west of Baghdad.