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Negotiators see progress in talks on Fallujah

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the first sign of progress toward resolving the tense standoff in Fallujah, coalition officials on Monday issued a joint statement with civic leaders from the besieged city calling on armed insurgents there to turn in their heavy weaponry to avoid a new offensive by U.S. Marines.

But the communique warned that the "time to settle this crisis peacefully remains extremely limited."

It also outlined a series of agreements to ease conditions for residents and allow for the orderly return of families who've fled since Marines attacked the insurgents earlier this month. U.S. officials are hoping to root out the guerrillas without launching an attack that could claim civilian lives and turn more Iraqis against the U.S.-led coalition.

The agreements marked a significant first step toward a peaceful resolution of the standoff over Fallujah, but it remained unclear whether the civic leaders who endorsed the communique would be able to prevail on armed militants in the city to give up their weapons.

South of the capital, militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reportedly ambushed an Army convoy near the holy Shiite city of Najaf.

Fighters from al-Sadr's Mahdi Army used a sport utility vehicle to haul a battered 2nd Armored Regiment Humvee into police headquarters at Kufa, which is adjacent to Najaf, Monday afternoon. They claimed it was a trophy from a firefight with Army troops roughly a half-mile outside the city limits hours earlier. A witness claimed there were more than a dozen U.S. casualties.

In Washington on Monday, President Bush named veteran diplomat John Negroponte to be America's first ambassador to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, a nation that Bush said "will be free and democratic and peaceful."

The 64-year-old Negroponte, whose nomination must be confirmed by the Senate, helped win approval of a Security Council resolution demanding that Iraq give up nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and illegal ballistic missiles while he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He also has served as the American envoy to Mexico and to Honduras, where he was criticized for supporting the Reagan administration's covert efforts to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua.

At a briefing in Baghdad on Monday, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt downplayed the military impact of Spain's decision to withdraw its contingent of 1,300 soldiers based near Kufa. About 2,500 U.S. troops are camped outside Kufa and Najaf.

"There will not be a security vacuum in that area at anytime," Kimmitt said.

He said he wasn't aware of a report that Honduras also had decided to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

In Fallujah, Marines have maintained a halt in offensive operations, but they reported sporadic attacks by insurgents over the weekend.

Representatives of the Iraqi Governing Council launched preliminary discussions with local delegates from Fallujah on April 13. The talks later included top coalition officials. Underscoring the sensitivity of the discussions, the Fallujah representatives haven't been named for fear they may be targeted for assassination.

The top priority for coalition officials is to disarm the guerrilla fighters.

"Those who give up their weapons voluntarily will not be prosecuted for weapons violations, and unarmed individuals will not be attacked," said coalition spokesman Dan Senor at an afternoon briefing. "The parties agree that coalition forces do not intend to resume offensive operations if all persons inside the city turn in heavy weapons."

He said heavy weapons include mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, machines guns, bomb-making materials, sniper rifles, grenades, surface-to-air missiles and all associated ammunition.

The communique declared that the negotiating parties, including representatives of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, "commit themselves to take all possible measures to implement a full and unbroken cease-fire," Senor said.

"They recognize that in the absence of a true cease-fire, major hostilities could resume on short notice," Senor said.

The agreement allows for unfettered access to the general hospital in Fallujah, for the removal and burial of the dead, and provisions of food and medicine to be supplied to isolated areas of the city.

The coalition will allow passage of "official" ambulances through the city and military checkpoints, Senor said.

The evening curfew will be delayed from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. "so that believers may fulfill their religious duties and attend mosques in the evening," Senor said.

Starting Tuesday, coalition forces surrounding the city will allow 50 families a day to return home.

Senor said the parties agreed that they should oversee the reformation of Iraqi security forces in Fallujah and that there should be "regular and routine" patrols of the city by joint coalition and Iraqi security forces.

The parties also agreed that coalition and Iraqi security forces, supported by the residents, "must move to eliminate remaining foreign fighters, criminals and drug users from Fallujah."

Coalition officials have said that the insurgency in Fallujah was stirred up by foreign fighters, terrorists, loyalists to Hussein's former regime and local sympathizers. Senor didn't elaborate on the emergence of "drug users" as a problem.

Nonetheless, a peaceful resolution to the violence that has gripped the city of 200,000 people depends on whether the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 fighters that have engaged in fierce battles with the Marines are willing to lay down their weapons.

Senor said the parties agreed that Iraqi authorities would prosecute criminal acts related to the unrest, including the March 31 killing and mutilation of four U.S. security contractors and a February attack on a Fallujah police station.

Senor said negotiations would continue.

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(Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report from Kufa.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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