Bloodbath looms as talks with Sadr fail
* Sadr’s supporters US troops exchange fire in Najaf
* Coalition hopes for Fallujah truce
* US soldier, two Iraqis killed
* Two more Japanese freed
NAJAF: Tension rose in this holy city on Saturday as backers of wanted cleric Moqtada Sadr said mediation efforts with the US-led coalition had failed and they feared American troops were poised to attack.
But on another trouble front coalition officials were “hopeful” a second day of talks with civic leaders in Fallujah would end a bloody standoff in the Sunni Muslim bastion west of Baghdad.
“Mediations with the US side have been halted because the mediators have told us the Americans are putting obstacles towards finding solutions to the crisis and the situation is getting worse,” Qais al-Khazaali, the head of Sadr’s office told reporters in Najaf.
“We are expecting the Americans to attack Najaf any moment now,” he said.
Gunmen opened fire on a US convoy near the Spanish base at Diwaniyah, east of Najaf, late on Saturday and American forces fired back, said a spokesman for Spanish troops in the occupation force.
A coalition soldier died of his wounds Friday night and two insurgents were killed in clashes east of the Euphrates River near Najaf between coalition troops and insurgents, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy coalition director of military operations said on Saturday. Sadr appeared in public for the first time in two weeks at Kufa’s grand mosque Friday on the outskirts of Najaf warning US forces massed in a desert area nearby that they were “forbidden” from entering Shiite Muslim holy cities.
The coalition wants Sadr to answer charges related to the murder of a rival cleric last year and insists he disband his Mehdi Army as the coalition prepares to hand power over to an interim Iraqi government on June 30. Sadr, who has been holed up in Najaf for the past 11 days, wants all his aides detained by the coalition to be released immediately. In Fallujah, an Iraqi mediator in the talks said that as part of confidence-building measures the US Marines had repositioned some of their forces to allow cars to reach the general hospital in Fallujah.
“Based on what Fallujah leaders are saying, we are hopeful,” Dan Senor, senior coalition spokesman told a press conference in Baghdad. “We are hopeful about their intentions. But our overriding question is: ‘can they deliver?’ and if so, can they do so expeditiously. Time is running out.” He said the coalition believes “the overwhelming majority of Fallujah residents want to remove the burden” of foreign terrorists and Saddam sympathizers. “We can either remove this burden with military force, or with the cooperation of the Fallujah people.”
“The latter would minimize bloodshed and is obviously our priority.”
He said the coalition delegation, which includes Richard Jones, the deputy of US civil administrator Paul Bremer, also planned to meet with members of the provincial council “within the next 24 hours.”
Jones was cautiously upbeat after talks with political and civic leaders in the town.
“I think we made a lot of progress in terms of understanding each other. We’ve been very pleased that last night was the quietest night in some time, and that appears to be holding during the day today.”
On the hostage front, two Japanese held in Iraq were released by their captors on Saturday, just hours after a detained US soldier, flanked by hooded gunmen, was paraded on an Arabic satellite channel. “The two were released, they are next to me. They are in very good health,” Sheikh Abdul Salam Kubaissi, a senior official of the Committee of Muslim Scholars said.
Al-Jazeera television broadcast images of Private First Class Keith Maupin, a 20-year-old US military reservist, surrounded by masked and armed insurgents.
Maupin was shown by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera sitting on the floor in US military fatigues and a standard-issue floppy hat. He seemed scared and avoided looking at the camera. —Agencies