NAJAF, Iraq—With American troops closing in and a growing number of his gunmen in hiding, radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr on Wednesday offered unconditional talks with U.S. authorities seeking to kill or capture him.
His spokesman in Najaf said al Sadr, whose men have launched widespread attacks on American forces in the last week, was retreating further by dropping demands that U.S.-led coalition forces withdraw from residential areas, free Iraqi detainees and end the siege of Fallujah before negotiations could proceed.
Elsewhere in Iraq, an Italian hostage was killed by his abductors.
Al Sadr's apparent effort to reduce tensions is a concession to Iraq's high-ranking ayatollahs—the most senior Shiite religious leaders—who are trying to avoid bloodshed in this holy city and who oppose any U.S. action to arrest a Shiite cleric. But the spokesman, Sheik Qais al Khazali, said the cleric wouldn't disband the Mahdi Army militia as the United States demanded and that any attempt by coalition forces to enter Najaf would be met with armed resistance.
There's no indication yet that American authorities are willing to negotiate with al Sadr. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of American forces in Iraq, said Monday that "The mission of the U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al Sadr."
Al Sadr is an upstart young cleric whom many more established religious figures reject, but he's successfully drawn support from them in his confrontation with U.S. forces.
"This isn't about ... Muqtada, this about the Americans facing off with the marjahs of Najaf," Khazali said. "These marjahs have influence with Shiites over the whole world. There wouldn't just be fighting against the Americans here, there would be fights against the Americans everywhere."
An open clash in this center of Shiite theology could further undermine the support that U.S. troops enjoyed a year ago when they toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, who'd oppressed Iraq's Shiite majority, and could further complicate the prospects for a smooth transition to Iraqi rule.
"We've accomplished a lot thus far, including uniting the Shiites and Sunnis to fight the Americans," Khazali said. "We also paved the way for Iraqis to set aside their (ethnic and religious) differences. For those reasons, it's been worth spilling so much blood."
Al Sadr's supporters—including Sunni Muslim sympathizers, who usually oppose Shiites and their clerics—have been attacking coalition forces across central and southern Iraq. They've also taken control of several city centers.
The American military is seeking to arrest al Sadr in connection with the slaying of a pro-Western Shiite cleric a year ago in a violent confrontation that drove Iraq's Shiite spiritual leaders into seclusion and brought al Sadr to the attention of Iraqis and Americans. They also want to destroy al Sadr's Mahdi Army, which is made up of thousands of the largely poor and uneducated Iraqis who are the core of his following.
A 2,500-strong U.S. force, backed by tanks and artillery, was massed Wednesday on the outskirts of Najaf and neighboring Kufa, where Sadr delivers his fiery sermons. Troop movements in the area raised fears of an American assault and sent more Mahdi troops into hiding with their Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
The Italian hostage who was killed was one of four Italian security guards who were abducted Monday. Italy's ambassador to Qatar watched a video of the killing on the Arab TV network al Jazeera and confirmed that the man killed was one of those who'd been kidnapped, according to Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
The video was accompanied by a statement from a group that calls itself the Green Battalion, which threatened to "kill the three remaining Italian hostages one after the other, if their demands are not met," according to al Jazeera. The group demanded that U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq, that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi apologize and that religious clerics held in Iraq be released.
Four more Marines were reported killed in action in the Fallujah and Ramadi area, where the U.S. military is trying to end a Sunni insurgency. Two of the Marines died Sunday, and two Monday, officials reported. No further details were released. The deaths bring to 87 the number killed in action in April.
The highways around Fallujah were virtually empty Wednesday as the Marines continued to hold their offensive to allow for political discussion. The Marines think that despite the pause, they'll return to the offensive and clear insurgents from the city. Already, cordons are designed to allow families to leave while forcing insurgents to surrender or fight.
"I believe K Company will keep pushing through," said Marine Lance Cpl. Abie Antillion, 20, of Aurora, Neb., speaking of his unit. "That'll flush out more bad guys."
There were no new details on the identity of four bodies found Tuesday near Fallujah. Road security continued to be a priority, with travel through much of the country considered dangerous.
The fate of the rest of the estimated 39 kidnap victims also remained unknown, though a French television reporter was released uninjured. Japan's Foreign Ministry said it was investigating reports that two more Japanese citizens had been taken hostage, in addition to three seized last week.
In Baghdad, there was a report that a girl thought to be younger than 10 dropped an explosive device on a military convoy from an overpass.
On Wednesday afternoon, mortar shells hit the Sheraton Hotel—home to journalists, aid workers and others from outside Iraq—and the Green Zone, home to the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council. No injuries were reported.
In Najaf, most of the Mahdi Army already had abandoned key government buildings earlier this week after al Sadr reached an agreement with local authorities to withdraw.
A day earlier, al Sadr selected an envoy from among Najaf's holy men to negotiate with the coalition. The cleric, Abdelkarim al Anzi, is a member of the Islamic al Dawa party, a Shiite opposition party once aligned with an ayatollah whom Saddam's regime executed in 1980 and who was a relative of al Sadr. The choice of al Anzi over a more powerful representative aligned with Najaf's top religious authorities, who might carry more weight with U.S. authorities, indicates the uneasiness al Sadr feels toward the ayatollahs he's tried to wrest power from but now is hiding behind.
Most Shiites here reject the notion of a foreign coalition that isn't Muslim trying the cleric son of a martyred marjah, or senior religious authority. Saddam's regime assassinated al Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al Sadr, in 1999.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Matthew Schofield in Baghdad and Patrick Peterson of The (Biloxi) Sun Herald in Camp Fallujah contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Moqtada al Sadr