A British journalist who was abducted Thursday was released today.
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) -- Iraqi officials and aides to a radical Shiite cleric negotiated today to end fighting that has raged in Najaf for nine days, after American forces suspended an offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr's militia. Al-Sadr's aides said he was wounded by shrapnel, but Iraqi officials disputed that.
In the southern city of Basra, militants released a British journalist today they had kidnapped Thursday and threatened to kill after aides to al-Sadr demanded today that he be freed.
With negotiations under way, the U.S. military said it suspended offensive operations against al-Sadr's al-Mahdi army militiamen, 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 launched a major offensive.
"Hopefully, the talks will go well and everything will be resolved peacefully," Pizzitola said.
Despite the suspension of the offensive, he said, U.S. troops were maintaining a cordon around the shrine, the cemetery and Najaf's old city, where the militants have taken refuge.
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.
Strikes on Fallujah
Also today, U.S. airstrikes hit Fallujah, witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of injuries. The U.S. military had no immediate comment, but U.S. forces have fought with militants holed up in that Sunni Muslim city for months.
One of Iraq's most senior Shiite religious leaders called for an end to the Najaf battle, as Iraqis took to the streets across the country to protest the 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," Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi said during Friday prayers in Karbala.
"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 negotiations were being held between officials of Iraq's interim government and al-Sadr's representatives, without participation by U.S. officials. National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie and Defense Minister Hazem Shalan were both in Najaf, Iraqi officials said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said all activities in Najaf were being "closely coordinated" between coalition forces and the Iraqi leadership.
"What's at stake there is no different than what's at stake anywhere in the country: 25 million Iraqi people that have been liberated are on a path toward a free and democratic system. To the extent that people use violence to try to prevent that, they'll be stopped," Rumsfeld said in Partenit, Ukraine.
Injuries in dispute
Al-Sadr has led an uprising against coalition troops for more than a week. An aide, Haider al-Tousi, said the cleric was hit in the chest and leg by shrapnel as he met with militia members near the Imam Ali shrine early today, and another aide said his condition was stable.
But the Iraqi Interior Ministry said al-Sadr was not wounded and had been involved in the negotiations since this morning. Reports about his injury are "an attempt to incite others aiming at escalating the situation," a ministry statement said.
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, at 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."
In Basra, police said 30 gunmen abducted a British journalist, James Andrew Brandon, 23, of the Sunday Telegraph, from the Diafa Hotel.
A video given to Associated Press Television News showed a man identifying himself as Brandon standing bare-chested with his head bandaged.
The "Telegraph, that's my paper," he said, turning to a masked captor. "I'm a journalist. I just write about what's happening in Iraq."
Brandon was brought to al-Sadr's local office and freed. He held an impromptu news conference there and thanked the kidnappers and al-Sadr's aides for working for his release.
"I'm OK, I'm recovering," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "I've been released thanks to [al-Sadr's] Mahdi army, because they intervened and negotiated with the kidnappers."
During his news conference, he appeared to have a black eye.
The militants said they took Brandon hostage to protest the U.S. military presence in Najaf, where coalition forces have been fighting al-Sadr's militia for several days. They threatened to kill him within 24 hours.
Kidnappers in Iraq have seized dozens of hostages in recent months, threatening to kill them in an effort to drive out coalition forces and companies that support them. Most kidnappers have been Sunni insurgents, and Shiites using the tactic would be a new development.
The Najaf fighting is the biggest test yet for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who is striving to suppress the violence plaguing Iraq while trying to convince Iraqis of the legitimacy of his unelected government.
The casualty toll in Thursday's fighting in the city 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 at the cemetery's edge, the military said.
Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who lives in Najaf but is 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.
Violence and unrest have spread to other communities.
Al-Mahdi army militants killed two police officers in an ambush outside Nasiriyah on Thursday afternoon, police said today.
A three-hour overnight battle between militants and police outside a police station in the southern city of Diwaniyah killed one militant, police Capt. Ali al-Zeyadi said.
Thousands of al-Sadr supporters, including some police officers, demonstrated outside Baghdad's Green Zone enclave housing the U.S. Embassy and government offices.
In the largely Sunni town of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, about 700 demonstrators demanded that U.S. troops leave Najaf, chanting, "Long live al-Sadr!"
In Fallujah, about 3,000 people demonstrated in support of al-Sadr, chanting "Fallujah is with Najaf; the target is America."
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