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Iraqi government delays amnesty plan after cleric's criticism

BAGHDAD—The interim Iraqi government delayed announcement of an amnesty plan for insurgents Monday while the leader of an extremist Shiite militia sent contradictory signals about whether he will agree to a deal.

For the second time in three days, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's office cancelled a news conference at which he had been expected to detail a plan to pardon low-level militants who have fought U.S. and Iraqi forces over the last year.

The cancellation came as a spokesman for radical cleric Moqtadr Sadr sought to temper a Sadr statement Sunday calling the new interim Iraqi government "illegitimate" and pledging "to continue resisting oppression and occupation to our last drop of blood."

Sadr's spokesman in Baghdad, Mahmoud al-Soudani, appeared at a news conference Monday with a clarification, saying that Sadr remains committed to a ceasefire with U.S. and Iraqi forces. But he also said Sadr rejects what he views as the continued American occupation of Iraq.

Sadr's militia, known as the Mahdi Army, temporarily seized poorly defended Shiite cities across southern Iraq in April, causing U.S. forces to have to rush south to retake them in bloody fighting. A truce was negotiated after Sadr's followers were routed in Najaf, Karbala and Kut by the U.S. 1st Armored Division, which estimates it killed more than 1,000 fighters in some of the most intense combat since last April's invasion of Baghdad.

Sadr, who espouses a Taliban-like version of Islam that seeks to ban alcohol and force women to wear the veil, agreed to stop fighting, and expressed interest in entering politics.

The amnesty debate is the latest example of how U.S. officials have curbed their ambitions for reshaping Iraqi society in the face of a persistent insurgency that includes foreign terrorists, as sporadic violence erupted anew Monday across Iraq, with a U.S. airstrike in Fallujah and isolated insurgency bombings in Baghdad and a rocket attack in Basra .

In addition to killing Americans, Sadr's followers have been accused of murdering alcohol and video dealers, and of torturing alleged apostates in renegade Islamic courts. It is difficult to imagine them participating peacefully in a democratic process.

Nineteen Americans died battling Sadr's forces, and some in the military continue to argue that Sadr should still be captured or killed, as U.S. generals once promised to do. But the prevailing view now seems to be that Sadr will be allowed into the political fold, so long as his militia disarms, which it so far has not done.

Allawi said on the ABC television network Sunday that he had been negotiating an amnesty with Sadr's aides. The prime minister has not explained what would become of the Iraqi judge's warrant that calls for Sadr's arrest on charges that he ordered the murder of a rival cleric.

"There is some debate still ongoing in (diplomatic) and military circles about what to do with Sadr," a senior American official said on condition of anonymity, adding that many officials now believe that "the most realistic, practical, and correct plan is to bring him and his followers into the political fold, rather than keep them out. The more people in this country enfranchised in the `system,' the greater the chance the country stands against al-Qaida and other destabilizing elements."

Some members of Congress have balked at that notion.

"I think it's dangerous if we get into compromising, of giving amnesty to people who have attacked American men and women, killed American men and women, been responsible for the insurgency," U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., said Sunday on CNN.

The amnesty debate played out against a backdrop of continued violence across Iraq.

U.S. jets attacked another house in the city of Fallujah on Monday, killing at least 10 people, according to reports on Arab TV, but the U.S. military had no comment. This was the fourth recent U.S. air strike against homes in Fallujah reputed to be used as safehouses by loyalists to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Violence Saturday severely damaged an oil pipeline, apparently in an apparent botched attempt to steal crude oil.

Officials with the Southern Oil Co. told the Associated Press that a 42-inch-diameter pipeline about 50 miles south of Baghdad was put out of service after it was breached by looters trying to divert oil. Sabotage, looting and insurgent violence have severely hampered Iraq's reconstruction.

The pipeline shutdown reduced by half Iraq's 1.8 million barrels per day in exports from the south, which accounts for about 90 percent of Iraq's total oil exports, the officials said. Oil sales are the Iraqi government's chief revenue source.

In the southern city of Basra, insurgents fired rockets at a government building early Monday, but instead struck nearby homes, killing one person and wounding eight, police said.

In Baghdad, officials reported that two roadside bombs narrowly missed a convoy of Iraqi security officials, but injured eight bystanders.


(Knight Ridder correspondent Dogen Hannah contributed to this report.)


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