Iraqi officials: Peace talks fail in Najaf
Al-Sadr's supporters descend on city after call from cleric
NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Efforts to broker a peace agreement with rebel forces loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the embattled south-central city of Najaf have failed, Iraqi government officials said Saturday.
"The Iraqi interim government has exhausted all efforts and did not leave any stone unturned to lead to a peaceful conclusion to this crisis," said Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, at a news conference.
Al-Rubaie said that military operations would resume to "return the city of Najaf to normal city functions and to establish law and order."
The development came as thousands of people headed to Najaf on Saturday to show their support for al-Sadr, whose militia has engaged U.S. and Iraqi forces in several cities across the country.
Al-Sadr supporters were trekking toward the Imam Ali Shrine in the center of Najaf, where they hope to protect the mosque, among the most sacred sites in the world to Shiites.
Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi said the Iraqis are welcome to visit the shrine but no one will be allowed to bring a weapon.
In a fiery speech Friday, Al-Sadr, one arm wrapped in a bandage, demanded U.S. forces leave Iraq and told the crowd to defend Najaf and "be a martyr."
An aide to the cleric said al-Sadr suffered minor shrapnel wounds while he was in the Imam Ali Shrine compound.
"Nobody can force me to leave or depart you," al-Sadr said. "We got rid of Saddam [Hussein] only to have him replaced by something worse than him."
Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army has been battling U.S. and Iraqi forces in Najaf for more than a week. The huge mosque compound is surrounded by Iraqi forces, but authorities have said there is no immediate plan to storm the site.
U.S. Army units reported they continued "to repel light, sporadic attacks" over the past day from the mosque compound and a nearby sprawling cemetery, the Coalition Press Information Center said.
Iraqi authorities have said people inside the mosque compound have fired mortars and laid land mines in the sacred compound. An al-Sadr spokesman denied those claims.
In his speech, al-Sadr sounded like he was in no mood to extend an olive branch.
"I am demanding that the people of Iraq in all provinces to call for the immediate resignation of the Iraqi government because it is an imperialistic American government," he said. "We are demanding the occupier to leave our country."
He said, "The crisis of the holy city of Najaf opens the door to unity and solidarity for the sake of a free and independent Iraq far from occupation."
Al-Sadr led the crowd in chants of "No, no to occupation," "No, no to America," and "No, no to Israel."
Also Friday, an official from al-Sadr's office in Baghdad listed several conditions to bring about peace, including:U.S.-led multinational and Iraqi forces and Iraqi police must leave Najaf, and the Marjayia, the Shiite religious authority, must get full responsibility over the city.Najaf must be protected by city residents under the authority of the Marjayia.All detainees, either Shiite or Sunni, must be released.
There was no immediate indication whether those demands would be met.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his government would like al-Sadr's militia to leave the compound, surrender arms and participate in the country's fledgling political process.
Violence in Hilla, Samarra
Clashes between forces loyal to al-Sadr and Iraqi police in Hilla ended early Saturday, with three police and 40 Mehdi Army fighters killed, according to a Hilla police official.
Four Iraqi police officers and 100 insurgents were wounded, Col. Hadi Hatef said. Police are in control of the city, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Baghdad, he said.
"We detained dozens of Mehdi Army with the help of the people of Hilla," he added. "We believe that the group of fighters were foreigners ... but I cannot confirm their nationalities."
Some militia fighters tried to free detainees from jail cells in Hilla, Hatef said.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces bombed insurgent positions in Samarra, north of Baghdad, killing about 50 fighters identified as "anti-Iraqi forces," according to the 1st Infantry Division.
The Samarra operation began early Saturday. U.S. forces took fire from the insurgents, armed with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, and called in air support, which dropped several 500-pound bombs.
No coalition forces were injured in the operation, according to the U.S. military. American soldiers detained three suspected weapons suppliers and a cache of weapons and ammunition.
Samarra is about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad.
Other developmentsA U.S. soldier and a Marine were killed in action Friday in separate incidents in Al Anbar province, according to the Coalition Press Information Center. The western province of Al Anbar includes the embattled cities of Ramadi and Falluja.Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, is in stable condition Saturday following a successful angioplasty and deployment of a stent, a spokesman said. The procedure was carried out Friday at a hospital in London, England.