With Sistani and the others meeting with As-Sadr, will making him a martyr really lead to the disbanding of his army? From AP:
NAJAF, Iraq – A 2,500-strong U.S. force, backed by tanks and artillery, pushed to the outskirts of the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Tuesday for a showdown with a radical cleric.
The standoff in the south came as a U.S. military helicopter went down near Fallujah in the west. Three soldiers were wounded and a Marine helping secure the site was killed by mortars, the military said.
Meanwhile, the string of kidnappings that has coincided with violence around Fallujah and in the south this month continued. A French journalist was reported abducted, and four Italians working as private guards were missing and feared kidnapped.
An Associated Press tally shows that 22 were being held hostage, while 35 others had been taken hostage and released.
However, Dan Senor, the spokesman for the U.S.-led administration, said Tuesday that about 40 foreign hostages from 12 countries were being held by Iraqi insurgents, and that the FBI is investigating the abductions. Among those held are three Japanese and truck driver Thomas Hamill of Macon, Miss., whose captors had threatened to kill them.
Senor said the administration would not negotiate with “terrorists or kidnappers” to gain the hostages’ release. He would not comment on efforts to free the captives.
Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said he has asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to adjust the U.S. troop rotation into and out of Iraq this spring so that U.S. commanders can have the use of perhaps 10,000 more soldiers than they otherwise would have.
On the way to Najaf, the U.S. force’s 80-vehicle convoy was ambushed Monday night by gunmen firing small arms and setting off roadside bombs north of the city. One soldier was killed and an American civilian contractor was wounded, officers in the convoy said.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said their mission was to “capture or kill” radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
American units set up a cordon on approaches to the city, barring militiamen from leaving.
Some 2,500 U.S. troops were massed outside of the city and commanders met Tuesday to review battle plans.
“We have consolidated north of Najaf and are preparing for combat operations,” said Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division.
Clashes took place Tuesday when a U.S. unit on the edges of the city pursued armed supporters of al-Sadr into Najaf and killed several militiamen, Batiste said. “Treat the people of Najaf with dignity and respect,” Batiste said. “Only bite off the head of the poised rattlesnake.”
Iraqi leaders launched hurried negotiations aimed at averting a U.S. assault on the city, site of the holiest Shiite site, the Imam Ali Shrine. Al-Sadr was photographed by Associated Press Television News leaving the shrine Tuesday.
The sons of Iraq’s three grand ayatollahs “” including the most powerful one, Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani “” met al-Sadr Monday night in his Najaf office and assured him of their opposition to any U.S. strike.
“They agreed not to allow any hostile act against Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr and the city of Najaf,” said a person at the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The delegation also was reportedly trying to work out a compromise to prevent a U.S. attack.
Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, the commander of the force, said his troops were aware that a “single shot in Najaf” by U.S. soldiers could outrage Iraq’s powerful Shiite majority.
“Look at this as the Shiite Vatican,” Pittard said before the deployment.
The grand ayatollahs “” older, moderate leaders with immense influence among Shiites “” have long kept the young, fiercely anti-American al-Sadr at arm’s length. The dispatch of the delegation reflected the eagerness to avoid bloodshed in Najaf and the new influence that the uprising by the al-Mahdi Army’s militia has brought al-Sadr.
In a concession to American demands, al-Sadr ordered his militiamen out of police stations and government buildings in Najaf and the nearby cities of Karbala and Kufa. Police were back in their stations and on patrols, while al-Sadr’s black-garbed gunmen largely stayed out of sight.
But the militia rebuffed a U.S. demand to disband.
Meanwhile: 4 Mutilated Bodies Found in Iraq.