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Truces In Fallujah And Najaf

By striking a tentative cease-fire in Najaf, the U.S.-led coalition appears to have cooled the hotspots that helped make April the bloodiest month of the war: the southern cities where a Shiite militia roamed and the besieged city of Fallujah.

The U.S.-led coalition on Thursday agreed to suspend offensive operations in Najaf after Shiite leaders struck a deal with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to end the fighting there.

That follows the agreement last month under which a brigade composed of former Iraqi soldiers took over security in Fallujah.

Fallujah and Najaf were the flashpoints in April's violence, during which 126 soldiers were killed in combat. May has been less bloody, but still dangerous, for U.S. troops, with 53 U.S. deaths in hostile action.

Whether those truces hold — and what sort of security they provide — is a key question as the June 30 deadline for the handover of power to Iraqis approaches.

In Najaf, it was unclear if the United States would press its demand that al-Sadr be arrested. A Shiite member of the Governing Council, Abdul-Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, warned that arresting al-Sadr would "complicate the issues" and lead to "an unending revolution."

In Fallujah, observers say a virtual Islamic mini-state now exists: Anyone caught selling alcohol is flogged and paraded in the city. Men are encouraged to grow beards and barbers are warned against giving "Western" hair cuts. Three roadside bombs exploded Thursday near an American convoy south of the city, witnesses said.

In other developments:

  • Gunmen tried to assassinate a Shiite Governing Council member as she was returning from negotiations in Najaf. Salama al-Khafaji survived the attack on her convoy south of Baghdad, but three of her bodyguards were killed and her son was missing, said a fellow council member, Mahmoud Othman. Al-Khafaji is one of three women on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council.
  • Britain will send an extra 370 troops to Iraq and bolster its firepower with an armored infantry battalion, officials said.
  • Four key nations proposed major changes to the U.S.-British draft resolution on Iraq that would give the country's new interim government more power, especially in its dealings with the U.S.-led multinational force that is expected to remain to help ensure security.
  • Shiite nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani, mentioned in as a candidate for the post of interim prime minister, took himself out of the competition Wednesday, a U.N. envoy said.
  • An artillery shell containing the deadly nerve agent sarin, found in the remains of a roadside bomb in Iraq, was made before the 1991 Gulf War. While it can't be regarded as evidence of recent Iraqi chemical weapons production, some analysts worry the shell may be part of a larger stockpile of Iraqi chemical weapons now in the hands of insurgents, but no more have turned up.
  • In its first official meeting, the president's commission investigating flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction heard from David Kay, the former Iraq weapons inspector.

    Al-Sadr launched his uprising after the occupation authority launched a crackdown on his movement. An Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant charging him al-Sadr in the 2003 assassination of moderate cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei.

    The revolt has stirred up violence in formerly peaceful Shiite areas south of Baghdad, further challenging U.S.-led forces who were already battling Sunni Muslim insurgents in central, western and northern Iraq.

    American commanders have been eager to quell the violence before they return sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on June 30. Fighting around some of the holiest cities of Shia Islam has angered many Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere and has led to calls for both sides to pull back from the shrines.

    On Tuesday, the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf was slightly damaged, and both U.S. and Shiite forces blamed the other.

    Mohammed al-Musawi, one of several Shiite figures who have been trying to arrange a peaceful end to the standoff, said the Najaf deal included transforming al-Sadr's militia into a political organization, creating a new security organization to protect the city, delaying prosecution of al-Sadr until an elected government takes office next year, withdrawing U.S. forces from Najaf, and ending the open display of weaponry on the streets.

    Al-Sadr said he was making the truce offer because of "the tragic condition" in Najaf after weeks of fighting and the slight damage suffered by the Imam Ali mosque.

    Iraqi leaders had urged the Americans to accept the agreement, which was announced by the Iraqi government early Thursday. The agreement does not require al-Sadr immediately to disband militia and turn himself in to authorities to face charges in the April 2003 assassination of a moderate cleric — key U.S. demands to end the standoff.

    Instead, the future of al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army and the status of the arrest warrant will be discussed during talks between the cleric and the Shiite religious and political leaders. That makes it unlikely that either step will be taken until sovereignty transfers from the coalition to a new Iraqi government at the end of next month.

    In Fallujah, the Iraqi force has put the United States in the awkward position of depending on officers from Saddam Hussein's former army.

    The departure of the Marines under an agreement that ended the three-week siege last month has enabled hard-line Islamic leaders to assert their power in the city 30 miles west of Baghdad.

    Some were active in defending the city against the Marines and have profited by a perception — both here and elsewhere in Iraq — that the mujahedeen, or Islamic holy warriors, defeated a superpower.

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