http://ap.tbo.com/ap/breaking/MGAWNIJX4UD.html Radical Iraqi Cleric Offers to End Standoff With U.S. Soldiers as Fighting Continues By Hamza Hendawi Associated Press Writer Published: May 12, 2004 NAJAF, Iraq (AP) - Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will end his violent standoff with American troops if the coalition postpones its legal case against him and establishes an Iraqi force to patrol his stronghold of Najaf, the city's Iraqi leaders said Tuesday. However, the offer hinges on an agreement that U.S. forces pull out of the city and nearby Kufa, and al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army militia lays down its arms, the leaders said. Al-Sadr made a similar offer earlier this month. On Wednesday, U.S. soldiers backed by tanks and helicopters battled Al-Mahdi fighters in the southern holy city of Karbala, witnesses said. Much of the fighting took place near the prominent Mukhaiyam mosque, which has served as a base for al-Sadr loyalists. The fighting involved soldiers of the 1st Armored Division and lasted for several hours in the Iskan and Jamiya areas of the city. There was no immediate word on casualties. Footage broadcast by the Fox News network, which has a reporter traveling with U.S. troops, showed a building on fire and a U.S. vehicle trying to knock down a wall. Earlier, about 40 Iraqi political and tribal leaders, including a senior al-Sadr aide, agreed on the proposal while meeting at the most prominent shrine in this Shiite holy city, where American soldiers have battled the cleric's fighters. The violence comes as the United States tries to improve security ahead of a June 30 deadline for restoring sovereignty to Iraqis. There was no immediate response to the offer from the U.S.-led coalition, but the new U.S.-appointed governor of Najaf offered to defer murder charges against al-Sadr if the young firebrand disbands his militia. Al-Sadr has been holed up since last month after U.S. authorities announced an arrest warrant against him in connection with the April 2003 assassination of a moderate rival cleric in Najaf. Mansour al-Assadi, a senior tribal leader, said a proposed deal would require all armed groups to withdraw from Najaf in an effort to defuse rising tensions among rival Iraqi groups. In exchange, murder charges against al-Sadr would be postponed until a permanent constitution is adopted next year, and he would be tried by an Islamic court. Qays al-Khaz'ali, a senior aide to al-Sadr who attended the meeting, said the agreement will be submitted to Najaf's Shiite religious leaders for approval before becoming an official offer. Abul-Hassan al-Amri, head of the Badr organization - the military wing of Iraq's largest Shiite political party, described the proposals as a "first step to reduce tensions in Najaf. Other steps will follow." He did not elaborate. Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi said he will ask the U.S.-led administration to delay legal proceedings against al-Sadr until after the Americans transfer power to a new Iraqi administration June 30. However, the militias will have to disband and disarm, al-Zurufi told The Associated Press. "The local police will take over the security of the province," he said. Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of U.S. forces in the Najaf area, said he urged religious, political and tribal leaders to seek a political solution to the confrontation. Al-Sadr's forces have clashed with American, British and other occupation forces across southern Iraq and in Baghdad since the arrest warrant was announced. Five Iraqis were killed and 14 others were wounded during fighting late Monday between U.S. soldiers and al-Sadr militiamen in Kufa, hospital sources said. Al-Sadr said Tuesday he was willing to tell his fighters to end the confrontation "if the occupation forces officially request negotiations, provided that they are just and honorable and under the supervision of religious authorities." Sadreddin al-Qombanji, representing Iraq's largest Shiite political party, said he "received indications" that "all forms of armed presence" soon would be withdrawn from the city. He did not elaborate whether this signaled a deal with the Americans to remove their positions from the edge of Najaf. Al-Qombanji is a member of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Iraqi government due to take office June 30 will not be elected but appointed after consultations with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is in Baghdad for meetings with Iraqi and American officials. Elections are expected by January. Also Tuesday, about 1,000 people, including a few women in black veils, marched through Najaf urging al-Sadr and his followers to leave the city as called for by moderate Shiite leaders. Tensions rose as the marchers passed by al-Sadr's office. Fighters from his al-Mahdi Army took up positions and fired weapons into the air, but there was no clash and the march continued without incident. Clerics loyal to al-Sadr distributed copies of a purported fatwa - or religious verdict - by Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri in which he states his support for the young cleric. Al-Haeri is al-Sadr's spiritual mentor. Al-Haeri, who has been living in Iran since the 1980s, is the designated successor of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada's father, who was killed by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein in 1999.