Thursday, August 19, 2004

US pushes into Baghdad Shia area

US forces say they have made a major advance into a mainly Shia area in Baghdad that is a stronghold of the radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr.

American troops moved into Sadr City, calling on militiamen to surrender.

In Najaf, where Mr Sadr is locked in a stand-off with US and Iraqi troops, gunfire reverberated on Thursday.

The cleric has offered to end the uprising, but says there must be a truce before his Mehdi militia will leave the Imam Ali shrine and disarm.


The operation, which saw US soldiers with tanks and Bradley armoured vehicles move some 2.5km (1.5 miles) into Sadr City, began on Wednesday, a US officer said.

"This is the first time (Sadr's) Mehdi militia has had to fight across the entire width of Sadr City. So it's got to throw them off balance," Lieutenant-Colonel Lopez Carter told a pool reporter embedded with the troops.

A US tank was reportedly badly damaged and one US soldier wounded during the assault on the suburb, which is home to about two million people.

Latest reports from Sadr City said US soldiers were using loudspeakers to urge militia fighters to hand over their weapons.

In Najaf, gunfire and explosions were heard coming from the historic centre on Thursday morning.

The first indications that Mr Sadr was offering to withdraw from the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf came during a national conference in Baghdad to select an interim Iraqi council.

As delegates met for an unscheduled fourth day on Wednesday, one of the organisers of the meeting read out a letter which she said she had received from Mr Sadr, in which he accepted the national conference's terms.

These also included joining the political process in exchange for an amnesty, she said.

The previous day, Mr Sadr had refused to meet a peace delegation sent by the conference, citing concerns over security and the status of the delegates.


One of Mr Sadr's spokesmen, Sheikh Hassan al-Zerkani, told the BBC that the cleric's offer was genuine, but guarantees needed to come from the occupiers, not the occupied.

He said signs were needed from the Americans that they would not go after the Mehdi Army.

The Iraqi defence ministry later said Mr Sadr and his followers would be granted amnesty only after they abandoned their uprising in Najaf and other cities.

The BBC's Kylie Morris in Najaf says Mr Sadr has shown himself a master of brinkmanship and bluff in the past - and whether he is sincere in his offer will only be clear when peace returns to Najaf.



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