US Prepares to Capture Rebel Iraqi Cleric

NEAR NAJAF (Reuters)–US forces have tightened their grip around one of Iraq’s holiest cities as the rebel Shi’ite cleric they have vowed to kill or capture offered peace terms to spare Najaf a bloodbath.

An envoy appointed by Moqtada al-Sadr said the wanted cleric had asked him to convey peace proposals to the Americans.

Russia’said it would airlift out more than 800 of its nationals and citizens of ex-Soviet states to escape a hostage free-for-all and worsening violence sweeping Iraq.

The 2,500-strong 3rd Brigade Task Force–along with Spanish and Polish troops–set up what US officers called an exclusion zone around Najaf and sent out reconnaissance patrols from Forward Operating Base Duke–20 km (13 miles) west of the city.

President George W. Bush vowed to stay the course and said a June 30 handover to Iraqi sovereignty would go ahead.

"Sayyed Moqtada made positive proposals to end the crisis. I cannot disclose the details. He realizes that an armed confrontation is not in anybody’s interest," Sadr’s envoy–Abdelkarim al-Anzi–now in Baghdad–told Reuters by telephone.

Anzi said he had met Sadr in Najaf on Tuesday.

The US military has branded Sadr an outlaw and pledged to kill or seize the cleric. Sadr had been staying near the Imam Ali shrine–which is sacred to the world’s Shi’ite Muslims–but an aide said he had now moved to his father’s house in eastern Najaf.

Iran’said the United States–its arch-foe–had sought its help in calming the Iraq violence. "Naturally–there are deman’s by Americans…that we help to resolve the crisis in Iraq. And we are acting," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said.

As tension mounted in Najaf–Iraqi mediators said they had extended a shaky truce in the embattled Sunni town of Falluja for 48 hours from 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

LOOTERS SHOT

But violence flared in Baghdad–where US soldiers fired on looters raiding a military truck on the airport road. A Reuters photographer said he saw several Iraqis lying motionless and bleeding after the shooting.

Four people were killed and six wounded in the northern city of Mosul when a Katyusha rocket–aimed at a police station–hit a civilian area–police and hospital officials said.

Tension was also running high in Najaf’s sister city–Kerbala–where residents said streets were empty amid fears of clashes between Sadr’s militia and US-led forces.

Bulgaria said its troops in the shrine city had come under fire during the night–but took no casualties.

Bush said his generals–who have asked for two more brigades–about 10,000 troops–to be sent to Iraq–would get them.

At a rare White House news conference–Bush called on Sadr to disband his militia. The cleric launched an uprising this month after US-led authorities closed his newspaper–said he was wanted for murder and detained his top aide.

The revolt came as insurgents from the smaller Sunni Muslim community–to which Saddam Hussein belongs–responded to a military crackdown in central Iraq by taking on US Marines in street battles.

Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in April–also the deadliest month for the US military since Saddam’s fall a year ago–with 83 American troops killed in two weeks of combat.

The violence has spurred insurgents to kidnap more than 40 foreigners in Iraq–though many have been released.

A French photographer was the latest to join four Italian private security guards–three Japanese civilians–three Czech journalists–two Arab aid workers and a US contractor on the list of reported hostages.

Russia’s Emergencies Ministry said seven flights from Kuwait and Baghdad would take 553 Russia’s and 263 nationals of former Soviet states out of Iraq later this week–despite the safe release of three Russian and five Ukrainian hostages on Tuesday.

FALLUJA NEGOTIATIONS

US Marines fought Sunni insurgents in Falluja overnight and witnesses said four civilians and two fighters were killed–but negotiators extended a truce for 48 hours.

The US military took no direct part in Tuesday’s truce talks. Ahmed Hardan–of the Iraqi Islamic Party–represented on Iraq’s US-appointed Governing Council–said Iraqi police were to return to duty in Falluja within 48 hours and US forces would withdraw. Hospitals would be re-supplied and displaced civilians would return.

Abdul Salam al-Kubaysi–spokesman for the Muslim Clerics Association–negotiating on behalf of Falluja–said only local police would be allowed in the city–not the "traitors and collaborators" of the US-trained Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

He said police could be backed up by creating a security force drawn from local tribes–apparently a reference to the gunmen who have been battling the Marines.

No US comment was available and it was not clear if the military had dropped a demand for the surrender of those behind the gruesome murders of four Americans in Falluja on March 31.

Pledging to keep US troops in Iraq as long as necessary–Bush said the latest violence was a "power grab" by ruthless extremists–not a civil war or popular uprising.

About 130,000 US troops spearhead the 145,000-strong coalition in Iraq–but some US allies are growing nervous.

The Philippines said on Wednesday it was considering pulling its troops and aid workers out of Iraq. Despite public disquiet at home–Japan and Italy have rejected deman’s by kidnappers of their nationals that they withdraw their troops.

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