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Shiite cleric pulls back Iraqi militias
Updated: 2004-04-13 09:17

As a tenuous cease-fire held in the Sunni city of Fallujah, a radical Shiite cleric was on the retreat Monday, pulling his militiamen out of parts of the holy city of Najaf in hopes of averting a U.S. assault. Still, a U.S. commander said the American mission remained to "kill or capture" the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr 
With quiet on both fronts, the scale of Iraq's worst fighting since the fall of Saddam Hussein became clearer: The military reported about 70 coalition troops and 700 Iraqi insurgents killed so far this month. It was the biggest loss of life on both sides since the end of major combat a year ago.

A hospital official said over 600 Iraqis were killed in Fallujah alone ! mostly women, children and the elderly.

The withdrawal of al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army militia from police stations and government buildings in Najaf, Karbala and Kufa was a key U.S. demand. But al-Sadr followers rebuffed an American demand to disband the militia, which launched a bloody uprising in Baghdad and the south this month.

"Al-Sadr issued instructions for his followers to leave the sites of police and the government," said lawyer Murtada al-Janabi, al-Sadr's representatives in the talks.

American troops were seen on the outskirts of Najaf, where the radical cleric is thought to be in his office. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said "the mission of U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr."

The son of Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani met with al-Sadr in his office Monday, telling him al-Sistani rejects any military move against al-Sadr and the holy city, a person who attended the meeting said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Al-Sistani is a moderate who has shunned anti-American violence. In addition to his son, the sons of Iraq's two other grand ayatollahs also were at the meeting, the source said.

U.S.-allied Iraqis were negotiating separately with representatives from Fallujah and al-Sadr. The U.S. military has moved more forces into both areas and is threatening to push into the cities if talks fall through.

The burst of violence since April 4 has exposed weaknesses in Iraq's U.S.-trained security forces. A battalion of the Iraqi army refused to fight in Fallujah, Sanchez said. And some police defected to al-Sadr's forces, said Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

In an effort to toughen the Iraqi forces, Abizaid said the U.S. military will reach out to former senior members of Saddam's disbanded army ! a reversal in strategy. The military in the past has tried to avoid relying on top officials from the ousted regime.

"It's ... very clear that we've got to get more senior Iraqis involved ! former military types involved in the security forces," he said. "In the next couple of days you'll see a large number of senior officers being appointed to key positions in the ministry of defense and the Iraqi joint staff and in Iraqi field commands."

Abizaid said he and Sanchez "are very much involved in the vetting and placing of these officers." At another point, Abizaid said inadequate checking of Iraqi recruits was a key failure in U.S. training efforts.

Another toll from the week's violence: more than 40 foreigners reportedly were taken hostage by insurgents, though a dozen had been released Sunday and Monday. Those still believed held included three Japanese and American truck driver Thomas Hamill, whose captors had threatened to kill them.

Seven Chinese were freed Monday after being held for a day, China's official news agency said. Two reportedly were injured.

Two U.S. soldiers and seven employees of a U.S. contractor were missing after an attack Friday on a convoy west of Baghdad, Sanchez said.

And Al-Jazeera television said 11 Russians working for a Russian energy company were kidnapped during a clash in Baghdad. The station did not say when the reported abduction took place.

Gunmen battered American supply lines around Baghdad on Monday, attacking a convoy of flatbed trucks carrying M113 armored personnel carriers south of the capital and settling them ablaze. A supply truck was burned and looted on the road from the airport.

The U.S. military has been trying to regain control of supply routes, particularly on Baghdad's western edge, where gunmen this week have attacked fuel convoys, shot down an Apache helicopter, and killed two American civilian contractors after dragging them from their car.

Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, deputy commander of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, said hundreds of Iraqi fighters have been killed in the capital in the past week ! apparently most in the western area.

"Full security has not been established yet in Baghdad, but it will be. It's stable now," Hertling told The Associated Press.

In Fallujah, Sunni insurgents and Marines largely held to a truce for a second day while Iraqi Governing Council members negotiated with city officials to find a way to halt the violence.

Marine commanders said insurgents were trying to smuggle weapons into the city in aid convoys and move them around in ambulances. Marines shot and killed two gunmen setting up a machine gun near their position, then saw an ambulance pull up and try to take the gun, said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne. Marines shot an insurgent in the ambulance.

"We have to be careful because ambulances are being used for legitimate purposes, but we are also treating them with suspicion," Byrne said.

On Sunday, Marines found five suicide belts along with U.S. military uniforms in a weapons cache ! raising concerns militants will try to approach U.S. positions and blow themselves up.

Iraqis in Fallujah complained that civilians were coming under fire by U.S. snipers. Sheik Dhafir al-Obaidi told Al-Arabiya television that dozens of people had been killed "because they thought it was a cease-fire and left their homes for supplies, and they were surprised by snipers."

More than 600 Iraqis have been killed in the city since the siege began, said the head of Fallujah's hospital, Rafie al-Issawi. Most of the dead registered at hospitals and clinics were women, children and elderly, he said. He refused to give figures, saying that doing so would suggest the remaining dead ! young, military-aged men ! were all insurgents, which he said was not the case.

In all, about 880 Iraqis have been killed in a week of fighting, according to an AP count based on statements by Iraqi hospital officials, U.S. military statements and Iraqi police.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt on Monday released the military's first full casualty estimates since widespread fighting erupted on April 4, saying around 70 coalition personnel have been killed and "about 10 times that amount" of Iraqi insurgents.

He said there was no "authoritative number" of civilians killed and said figures seen so far came through the "filter of propaganda."

Abizaid also complained of propaganda, accusing two Arab television stations ! Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya ! of broadcasting false reports that American troops were targeting civilians in Fallujah.

Three U.S. Marines were killed Sunday in Anbar province, the area that includes Fallujah, the military said Monday without elaborating. An attack on an Army patrol in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killed a soldier from the 1st Armored Division and injured four others Sunday.

An attack on a convoy Sunday killed a Romanian working for a security company, Romania's ambassador to Iraq said.

Aysar al-Baghdadi, an assistant to Governing Council member Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said that in the Fallujah talks, the United States demands the surrender of the killers of four American contractors on March 31, the handover of foreign militants and an end to attacks on U.S. troops in and around the city.

Al-Rubaie on Monday called on "Fallujah's good people ... to hand over these criminals and finish the bloodshed."

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