BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. officials set the stage Sunday for ending a weeks-long standoff with insurgent forces in two Iraqi cities, warning residents of Najaf that they must take action to head off an "explosive situation" there and giving insurgents in Fallujah until Tuesday to surrender their weapons.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said U.S. forces will begin joint patrols with Iraqi police in Fallujah on Tuesday, a decision that will either help the coalition re-establish control over the city or unleash another wave of violence.
The coalition's chief civilian spokesman, Dan Senor, warned that militiamen in Najaf are stockpiling weapons in mosques, shrines and schools and that "every law-abiding citizen that seeks a peaceful resolution to the situation must speak out" against the stockpiling.
No new combat was reported near Fallujah Sunday. At Najaf, witnesses said a convoy of 10 to 12 U.S. armored vehicles entered the city's southern outskirts and that U.S. helicopters attacked members of the Mahdi Army militia of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr outside the nearby city of Kufa.
There were also signs that Najaf residents are tiring of the presence of Mahdi Army militiamen. Unidentified gunmen killed at least four militiamen in the center of Najaf late Saturday and two others were killed in Najaf's cemetery, Islam's biggest.
Two more American deaths were reported Sunday: A soldier killed when a roadside bomb exploded in eastern Baghdad and a U.S. Coast Guardsman who died of wounds suffered Saturday in a suicide boat attack on oil facilities south of Baghdad. Two Navy sailors also died in that attack, which damaged the al Basra oil terminal, one of Iraq's primary outlets for oil exports. The facility was unable to operate Sunday but was expected to resume operations Monday.
Military officials said the Baghdad convoy was also fired on by nearby attackers with small arms and there were reports that children on the scene had been shot, but there were few details.
The decision to set a deadline and start patrols in Fallujah was made Saturday night in agreement with leaders from Fallujah who have been working to end the standoff in the city 35 miles west of Baghdad, Kimmitt said.
What influence those leaders have over the 1,000 to 2,000 armed insurgents remains unclear. So far insurgents have shown little interest in promises the leaders have made to try to persuade the insurgents to turn in weapons, surrendering a paltry amount of rusted and inert arms that military officials have characterized as junk.
No one turned in any weapons Sunday, Kimmitt said.
Some policy experts said it appeared more likely that the situation in Fallujah will soon result in a major military confrontation.
"It looks like they have given the local leadership an opportunity to try to disarm the insurgents, and this has not worked," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense-policy think tank. "I am assuming the Marines will resume offensive operations within the next few days, and things will get really ugly."
Michael Rubin, who served as a political adviser to the coalition and is now a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said U.S. military forces have little choice but to strike. "The greatest danger is not to react, since that signals to all the militants that we won't enforce the rule of law," he said.
Officials also revealed actions that coalition forces say is weakening the insurgents in both Najaf and Fallujah.
In one, Kimmitt described coalition troops pursuing a man spotted with a mortar tube near Fallujah. The man fled into a house. The ensuing firefight left an estimated 25 insurgents killed.
In Najaf, coalition forces have conducted a series of raids to detain leaders of the Mahdi Army.
Commanders of al-Sadr's militia have insisted that on the orders of al-Sadr, there are no weapons inside the shrines in Najaf and neighboring Kufa. In a recent visit, a reporter saw none visible in the first floor offices and parlors of either holy place, and no armed al-Sadr loyalists are inside the shrines' compounds.
But gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs and a few with rocket propelled grenades routinely patrol the rooftop of the Kufa Mosque and the outside of the Najaf shrine as well as religious buildings near both holy places.
Al-Sadr during the past three weeks has had a seemingly limitless supply of money to buy arms because he now controls the Grand Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf where billions of dinars and foreign currencies are routinely deposited into the glass-encased tomb by religious Shiite pilgrims. Money is also deposited in a lesser Shiite shrine that he controls, that of Moslem bin Akeel, a nephew of Imam Ali, who is buried in a compound behind the Kufa Mosque.
(Correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Baghdad contributed to this report. Robert Moran reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.