BAGHDAD, Iraq—As fighting continued in the capital and in the holy city of Najaf, Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced a limited amnesty program Saturday aimed at quelling the persistent insurgency throughout Iraq.
The order, which Allawi signed Wednesday, does not grant amnesty to killers, including those who've attacked American forces. The 30-day offer also excludes kidnappers, rapists and looters.
"This order is not for people who have committed crimes, who have killed," Allawi said. "The criminals will be brought to justice, starting from (terrorist Abu Musab al) Zarqawi down to anybody who committed crimes on the streets of Baghdad."
In its early drafts, the plan reportedly offered amnesty to a wider array of fighters, a notion vetoed by American officials. In its current form, it is applicable to people who possessed or traded small arms, possessed explosives or bomb-making materials, withheld information about terrorists from authorities or who joined terrorist groups in the 15 months since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
It is unclear how many people could be involved.
Some had expected that Allawi would announce a state of emergency Saturday, but asked about that option, he said, "The situation is still under control, despite what the media is trying to propagate."
Since Thursday, hundreds have been killed in clashes with coalition forces in central and southern Iraq. Most believe that insurgents aligned with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are responsible, although some foreign fighters seem to be participating.
Had a state of emergency been imposed, there is some question about how much more Iraqi forces, already stretched thin, could do to enforce security. The implementation of martial law might make that point obvious, which in turn would become a major political liability for a prime minister trying to foster a reputation for being tough.
The ongoing violence threatens Iraq's fledgling government and democratic transition. It continues both in Sunni stronghold towns to the north and west of Baghdad, and in towns dotting the southern section of the country.
Baghdad University political science professor Nabil Mohammed Salim said Allawi's administration is still unable to perform the most basic of government functions: providing security and a sense of well-being.
Also on Saturday, Allawi said his government was closing the Iraq offices of the Arab satellite television channel Al Jazeera for at least a month. Chief among his complaints was that the channel has broadcast images of violence in Iraq; many which have undermined his message of improved security.
"They have been showing a lot of crime and criminals on TV," said Interior Minister Fallah al Hassan Naqib. "They have encouraged criminals and gangsters."
Despite the government action Saturday, insurgents battled around Iraq for a third consecutive day of fighting. Members of the militia loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric al-Sadr fought American forces in a Baghdad slum and in Najaf, about 100 miles south of the capital. There were also smaller clashes in western Baghdad.
The violence was less fierce on Saturday but the last three days have seen the most intense clashes since June when a two-month uprising by al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, ended.
Fighting on Saturday alone killed at least 21 people in Najaf and nine in Baghdad, the Health Ministry reported. The wounded amounted to 128 in Najaf and 24 in Baghdad.
Figures on American forces' casualties were not immediately available.
The heaviest fighting was in Sadr City. Bands of gunmen stood on every corner, and Mahdi members told drivers: "You can't go down this way, because we put explosives on the side of the road."
Fighters fired mortars at a Sadr City police station, an apparent attempt to lure U.S. or Iraqi vehicles to a roadside ambush. There were regular bursts of AK-47 rifle fire, and al-Sadr clerics whipped around the streets in Jeeps filled with gun-toting militia.
"We are waiting for the Americans to return," explained one Mahdi soldier. "We want to drive them out of the city."
In Najaf, the violence seemed to have softened.
Yet Mahdi members barricaded roads in and out of the city, apparently in anticipation of bigger fights. Crouched with their AK-47 rifles, they fired warning shots at approaching vehicles, and by 4 p.m. local time it was difficult to enter or leave the city without running into them or a Marine roadblock.
Meanwhile, the governor of Najaf told news media that "we demand the militia leave if it wants to survive."
Residents reported that a ring of U.S. tanks was just outside the city center, along with Iraqi National Guard troops. The Marines did not immediately respond to a request seeking confirmation.
Many in Najaf took the tanks' formation as a sign that the Marines would use Iraqi guardsmen to enter the area of the Imam Ali shrine and fight al-Sadr's forces, so as to avoid the provocation of non-Muslims waging battle at the doorstep of the holiest site in Shiite Islam.
That suspicion was furthered in the minds of some Najaf residents when Arab satellite news channels aired footage of Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the nation's top Shiite cleric. Sistani secretly left Najaf for London this week, ostensibly because of severe heart illness complications.
On television, though, he looked healthy.
Some wondered if reports of his illness were an excuse for him to be out of town when American forces storm the city center. A Najaf schoolteacher and Sistani follower who gave only his first name, Muhi, said: "Sistani's opinions are always peaceful, and we worry now that he is gone."
A contingent of Shiite representatives, who brokered the June peace deal between al-Sadr and U.S. forces, was in Najaf on Saturday trying to find a solution to the fighting.
"We have to help the city avoid further military action and violence," said Amar al Hakim, a spokesman for the group. "The people of Najaf are facing a very bad situation, and the risks are big."
Publicly at least, the Iraqi government was in no mood to negotiate.
Branding those battling Iraqi and American forces as "outlaws," Allawi disputed that the combatants were al-Sadr followers. Captured fighters in Najaf have disassociated themselves from al-Sadr and include many criminals whom Saddam Hussein released from Abu Ghraib prison, he said. The Najaf governor said that at least 80 Iranians had been killed or captured in the fighting. The Marines have confirmed the presence of foreign fighters, but did not provide a number.
An al-Sadr representative in Baghdad rejected Allawi's assertion.
"Those who are fighting now in Najaf are faithful men fighting the occupiers, fighting to protect their sacred land," said Sheikh Raed al Khadimi.
While battling al-Sadr supporters, the interim government has continued to invite al-Sadr into the political fold. Allawi said Saturday that he has received "positive messages" from al-Sadr, though he had not spoken directly with him.
(Hannah reported from Baghdad, Lasseter from Najaf. Knight Ridder photographer David Gilkey contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.