Iraqi officials and aides to a radical Shiite cleric negotiated Friday to end fighting that has raged in the holy city of Najaf for nine days, after American forces suspended an offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, officials said. Aides said al-Sadr was injured by shrapnel, though Iraqi officials disputed that.
With negotiations ongoing, the U.S. military said it suspended offensive operations against al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, who are holed up in the city's vast cemetery and the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites to Shiite Muslims.
"We are allowed to engage the enemy only in self defense and long enough to break contact," said Maj. Bob Pizzitola, executive officer for the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. "That was a blanket order for everybody."
He said the militia appeared to have stopped most attacks as well, and the city appeared quieter just one day after the U.S. military announced it had begun a major offensive to rout the militants.
"Hopefully, the talks will go well and everything will be resolved peacefully," Pizzitola said.
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The U.S. Defense Department said about 2,200 Marines, along with 500 to 1,000 soldiers and an undisclosed number of U.S.-trained Iraqi troops, were involved in Thursday's offensive.
One of Iraq's most senior religious leaders called for an end to the Najaf fighting, as Iraqis took to the streets across the country to protest the ongoing violence.
Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi, speaking in Karbala during prayers on Friday, the Muslim holy day, condemned the persistent fighting.
"What is going on in Najaf and the rest of the Iraqi cities is a violation of sanctities, an aggression on holy sites and shedding of innocent blood that could lead to a vicious civil war," al-Modaresi said.
"I call on everyone to shun violence, stop all military operations and for the immediate withdrawal the troops from the cities."
Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi said the talks were between Iraqi government officials and al-Sadr's representatives. National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie traveled to Najaf and was joined there by Defense Minister Hazem Shalan, Iraqi officials said. U.S. officials were not involved in the talks, al-Zurufi said.
Still, the U.S. military said it was maintaining a cordon around the shrine, the cemetery and Najaf's old city, where the militants had taken refuge, Pizzitola said.
Al-Sadr, who has led an uprising against coalition troops for more than a week, was hit in the chest and leg by shrapnel as he met with militia members near the shrine early Friday, aide Haider al-Tousi said.
Another al-Sadr spokesmen said the cleric's condition was stable. He may be holed up with his loyalists in the compound housing the revered shrine, but aide Haider al-Tousi said he was moved to an unknown location.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry said al-Sadr was not injured and had been involved in the negotiations since Friday morning. Reports about his injury are "an attempt to incite others aiming at escalating the situation," a ministry statement said.
Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy director for operations for coalition forces, could not confirm reports al-Sadr was wounded.
"Multinational forces are operating under firm instructions not to pursue Muqtada and not to conduct operations within the exclusion zone surrounding the Imam Ali and Kufa Mosques," he said in a statement.
Al-Sadr urged his followers to remain calm.
"We got a letter from him saying 'Be steadfast and behave rationally, don't surrender to your emotions,"' Aws al-Khafaji, from al-Sadr's office in the southern town of Nasiriyah, told Al-Jazeera television.
In a sermon read on his behalf during Friday prayers at the Kufa Mosque, al-Sadr said the United States was intent on "occupying the whole world."
"The presence of occupation in Iraq has made our country an unbearable hell," he said. He called on Iraqis to rebel "because I will not allow another Saddam-like government again."
The Najaf offensive threatened to enrage Iraq's Shiite majority — especially if the fighting damages the shrine — and presented the biggest test yet for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who is trying to suppress the violence plaguing his country while also trying to persuade Iraqis of the legitimacy of his unelected government.
The casualty toll from Thursday's fighting was unclear. At least five Iraqi civilians were killed by the afternoon, said Nabil Mohammed, a health worker in the city. Two American soldiers were wounded by a mortar shell while standing in an intersection on the cemetery's edge, the military said.
Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in London for medical treatment, expressed "deep sorrow and great worry" about the violence and called on all sides to end the crisis quickly. His office was working to mediate an end to the fighting, he said.