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Iraq: Intense Fighting Reported in Al-Sadr City As Cease-Fire Talks Hit Stumbling Blocks

At least 15 people have been killed and scores wounded in fighting between U.S. and militant forces in recent fighting in Baghdad's impoverished Al-Sadr City neighborhood. The fighting between U.S. troops and militiamen loyal to Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was reportedly the most intense in the district since April. A U.S. military spokesman said the fighting started when militants attacked U.S. forces conducting routine patrols. But al-Sadr's forces blame intrusive incursions by U.S. soldiers, as well as what they say are attempts to arrest the firebrand cleric.

Baghdad, 7 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr told RFE/RL that two major differences have led to a breakdown in cease-fire negotiations between the Iraqi government, U.S. military forces and militiamen in Al-Sadr City.

Sheikh Salah Jasem al-Obaidi said that representatives of al-Sadr's office and heads of local tribes from Al-Sadr City are participating in the talks. The government's lead negotiator is Mowaffaq al-Rubaei, the government's national security adviser. U.S. military officials are also at the table.

Al-Obaidi said -- and other Iraqi sources have confirmed -- that the main stumbling block is the disarmament of al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi militia in Al-Sadr City, whose number al-Obaidi puts in the "tens of thousands."

"One of the most important items is getting the arms of people inside Sadr City," al-Obaidi said. "The American troops said that we have to start our truce after the taking of the arms. The Iraqi tribes, they refused."

Al-Obaidi and other al-Sadr advisers and spokesmen in Baghdad confirm that they want a buy-back program started before the truce. Under such a plan, the Iraqi government would pay for guns turned in by Al-Sadr City militiamen.
"The American troops said that we have to start our truce after the taking of the arms. The Iraqi tribes, they refused." -- Al-Obaidi

The exact number of guns in Al-Sadr City, and their variety, is not known. They are generally believed to be Soviet-era AK-47s, semi-automatic weapons, and shoulder-fired rockets.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say they cannot accept a buy-back plan before a truce because it is possible that the militiamen would opt to "sell" some of their guns, collect the money, and begin fighting again with the remaining weapons.

The other sticking point in the talks is said to be the presence of U.S. forces around Al-Sadr City's perimeters. Al-Sadr's negotiators have asked for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops, to be replaced by Iraqi police and security forces.

Al-Obaidi said the United States insists on maintaining its forces in the district.

"They said that the Iraqi police themselves are not able to protect the city," al-Obaidi said. "They are in need of our help, so we have to get inside. The Iraqi tribes, the heads of the tribes, said, 'No, you have to retreat, and we give our word that we will help them ourselves. We will help the Iraqi police in order to make the place peaceful.'"

Al-Obaidi said the success of the Al-Sadr City negotiations is important in reaching similar truces with Al-Mahdi militiamen in the rest of the country. While al-Sadr has asked his militiamen to observe a nationwide truce, he has left it to local leaders in each city to reach separate agreements with the government.

Al-Sadr City was not specifically included in a peace deal that ended three weeks of fighting in August in the holy Shi'a city of Al-Najaf between U.S. and Iraqi troops and fighters loyal to al-Sadr.

Al-Obaidi said that if the talks in Al-Sadr City fail, al-Sadr's followers in other parts of the country will see it as a further reason to distrust the government.

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