BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — As a tenuous cease-fire held in the
Sunni city of Fallujah, a radical Shiite cleric was on the retreat
yesterday, pulling his militiamen out of parts of the holy city of
Najaf in hopes of averting a U.S. assault.

Still, a U.S. commander said the American mission remained to
“kill or capture” the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Another toll from the week’s violence: more than 40 foreigners
reportedly were taken hostage by insurgents, though a dozen had
been released Sunday and yesterday, those still believed held
included three Japanese and American truck driver Thomas Hamill,
whose captors had threatened to kill them.

With quiet on both fronts, the scale of Iraq’s worst
fighting since the fall of Saddam Hussein became clearer: The
military reported about 70 coalition troops and 700 Iraqi
insurgents killed so far this month. It was the biggest loss of
life on both sides since the end of major combat a year ago.

A hospital official said more than 600 Iraqis were killed in
Fallujah alone — mostly women, children and the elderly.

The withdrawal of al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army militia from
police stations and government buildings in Najaf, Karbala and Kufa
was a key U.S. demand. But al-Sadr followers rebuffed an American
demand to disband the militia, which launched a bloody uprising in
Baghdad and the south this month.

“Al-Sadr issued instructions for his followers to leave
the sites of police and the government,” said lawyer Murtada
al-Janabi, al-Sadr’s representatives in the talks.

American troops were seen on the outskirts of Najaf, where the
radical cleric is thought to be in his office. The top U.S.
commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said “the
mission of U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada
al-Sadr.”

The son of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, met with al-Sadr in his
office yesterday, telling him al-Sistani rejects any military move
against al-Sadr and the holy city, a person who attended the
meeting said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Al-Sistani is a moderate who has shunned anti-American violence.
In addition to his son, the sons of Iraq’s two other grand
ayatollahs also were at the meeting, the source said.

U.S.-allied Iraqis were negotiating separately with
representatives from Fallujah and al-Sadr.

The U.S. military has moved more forces into both areas and is
threatening to push into the cities if talks fall through.

The burst of violence since April 4 has exposed weaknesses in
Iraq’s U.S.-trained security forces. A battalion of the Iraqi
army refused to fight in Fallujah, Sanchez said. And some police
defected to al-Sadr’s forces, said Gen. John Abizaid, the top
commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

In an effort to toughen the Iraqi forces, Abizaid said the U.S.
military will reach out to former senior members of Saddam’s
disbanded army — a reversal in strategy. The military in the
past has tried to avoid relying on top officials from the ousted
regime.

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