Prague, 19 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Minister of State Qassim Dawud, speaking at a news conference in Al-Najaf, said radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could be facing his "final hours."
He said the government has exhausted all peaceful means to persuade al-Sadr to back down and is ready to impose what he called a "decisive" military solution to the standoff, unless the rebel cleric capitulates. "Mr. Muqtada al-Sadr must announce personally at a press conference that he disbands what is called the Al-Mahdi Army. Disbanding armed militias is the main issue. That is why he has to make this statement himself, not through his representatives," Dawud said.
Dawud vowed to liberate the Imam Ali shrine, where al-Sadr and his fighters are holed up. But Dawud declined to say whether there would be an assault on Iraq's holiest Shi'a site. That could spark outrage among the country's majority Shi'a community -- especially if U.S. forces are involved.
A senior aide to al-Sadr, speaking shortly after Dawud's announcement, told reporters inside the shrine that "it is very clear" the radical cleric rejects the government's demands to end the uprising.
Earlier, explosions and gunfire were heard echoing around Al-Najaf's holy sites, and U.S. forces moved into Al-Sadr City, the cleric's Baghdad stronghold.
An Al-Sadr City resident, who identified himself as Muhammad, told RFE/RL's Iraqi Service that the neighborhood is now mostly quiet after an offensive yesterday in which the U.S. military said it had killed 50 fighters of al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. "There's a lot of American tanks, armored vehicles around," he said. "They're sitting at the entrance of [Al-Sadr City] and also in the deep streets of the city. Actually, [the Shi'a fighters] disappeared from the streets [yesterday]. You know, the Al-Mahdi Army are the people who are living in Al-Sadr City. So each one just put down his weapon and went back to his home."
Yesterday, the Iraqi government also had presented al-Sadr with a demand to end the standoff. He reportedly agreed, but then called for a cease-fire to be in place before his forces would pull back.
His apparent about-face raised doubts among U.S. officials. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice commented on U.S. television: "I don't think we can trust al-Sadr. I think we have to see action, not just words."
Dawud said today that the current deadline will be the last. "These are the conditions which the Iraqi government offers [to end the standoff in Al-Najaf]," he said. "These conditions are final. If military action continues and these conditions are not implemented, the military action will be the option that will be chosen."
The U.S. military says it has killed hundreds of insurgents during the two weeks of fighting in Al-Najaf. Militia fighters give a much lower estimate. Some 10 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Al-Najaf this month, including one Marine yesterday.
Meanwhile, the Arab-language satellite television network Al-Jazeera reports that Iraqi militants who say they have captured a U.S. journalist are now threatening to kill him within 48 hours if U.S. forces do not leave Al-Najaf.
The network showed footage of a man with a moustache kneeling in front of masked men holding rifles. The group -- calling itself the Martyrs Brigades -- identified the man as Micah Garen.
According to witnesses, Garen was seized on 13 August in a market in the southern city of Al-Nasiriyah. The 36-year-old was reportedly working on a documentary about the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq.
(compiled from staff and agency reports, with RFE/RL's Iraqi Service)Factbox: Iraq's Holy City of Al-Najaf For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".