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Iraqi bid to arrest al-Sadr fails

Fighting eases after two days of Najaf clashes

NAJAF, Iraq -- Iraqi security forces staged an unsuccessful raid yesterday to seize rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shi'ite Muslim leader blamed by the United States for a surge in violence in this holy city that has claimed scores, perhaps hundreds, of lives.

In their first such move against Sadr, members of the Iraqi National Guard and police tried in vain to arrest the firebrand leader at his home here in Najaf near the sacred Imam Ali shrine, the base from which he had urged followers to rise up and eject US forces. But he was not there at the time.

After two days of pitched battles between his supporters and the Americans, fighting eased.

Last night, nearly a dozen bombs exploded in the center of the capital near the fortified compound that houses the interim government and the US Embassy. Such late-night explosions have become more frequent in recent days; two hotels in Baghdad housing foreign journalists and contract workers were attacked Thursday and Friday nights. No one was injured.

Even as Iraqi forces made their move against Sadr, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told a news conference in Baghdad, the capital, that the government had received ''positive messages" from the cleric and concluded that, in effect, he was not to blame for the violence.

''These are bandits and gangs trying to hide behind Moqtada Sadr," Allawi said of the militants. ''We don't think those are his people. There is no statement from him committing himself to them. . . . That's why I say it's not him."

Allawi also unveiled a long-awaited amnesty program -- albeit much more limited in scope than expected -- for people linked to Iraq's bloody 15-month-old insurgency.

US and Iraqi security forces said fighting broke out on Thursday after members of the militia attacked an Iraqi police station. As the Iraqi forces asked for help from the Marines, the violence escalated rapidly, spreading to other cities in the south and to Sadr City in the capital. Through his associates, Sadr called on his militia to rise up against the US military and its allies.

In Najaf, which saw the fiercest fighting in Iraq since May, only sporadic conflict was reported yesterday. US helicopters and warplanes droned overhead, and occasional mortar rounds whistled and exploded in the abandoned streets.

US and Iraqi officials said they had made progress in retaking control of a cemetery close to the Imam Ali shrine that was being used as a base and weapons storehouse for members of Sadr's Mahdi militia. The sprawling graveyard, pocked with caves and mausoleums, was the scene of running battles between militants and US Marines, sometimes reaching hand-to-hand fighting ''at the range you can smell a man," Lieutenant Colonel John Mayer said.

''This is the most intense combat I've seen," said Captain Coby Moran, operations officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, First Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment.

US officials had put the death toll of militants at 300 on Friday but acknowledged that such battlefield estimates ''are always iffy." Sadr's aides said the figure was closer to three dozen.

Yesterday action culminated in the surprise move by Iraqi police and the Iraqi National Guard to swarm Sadr's home and arrest him. ''We surrounded the house, but he was not at home," said General Ghalib Hadi Jazaery, Najaf's chief of police.

He said his officers were enforcing an arrest warrant issued last year against Sadr in the murder of a rival cleric. US troops tried to execute the warrant in April, igniting a Shi'ite uprising that lasted two months and killed hundreds of Iraqis before ending in an uneasy cease-fire.

''We want to clean up this city from this devil," Jazaery said.

The move against Sadr was launched two hours before the expiration of a 6 p.m. deadline set by Najaf Governor Adnan Zurfi for all militants hailing from outside Najaf to quit the city.

Allawi, at his Baghdad news conference, said that of the 1,000 militants whom US and Iraqi forces say they have captured, many dissociated themselves from Sadr during questioning. He reiterated allegations by Iraqi officials that most of the fighters came from cities outside Najaf or other countries, particularly Iran, or are convicted criminals out to wreak havoc.

The seeming contradiction between the attempt to seize Sadr and Allawi's conciliatory words might be part of a delicate political balancing act.

The transitional government is keen to stamp out the lawlessness and violence that have angered Iraqis since the end of the US-led invasion last year, but officials also desperately want to avoid setting off a rebellion among Iraq's long-suppressed majority Shi'ites. The prime minister is a Shi'ite.

''I think he tried to play it smart," said Hassan Bazaz, a Baghdad political analyst. ''Let the Americans do and say what they want" -- blaming Sadr and cracking down in Najaf -- ''while he played it cool."

To persuade others to give up violence, Allawi announced the limited amnesty program, good for the next 30 days, for Iraqis guilty of ''minor crimes," such as owning weapons or explosives, failing to pass on knowledge of militant plots, or sheltering those involved in insurgent attacks. Officials ruled out pardons for anyone directly involved in fatal assaults.

The plan fell far short of previous expectations, casting doubt on its ability to win over active sympathizers of the insurgency, which supporters regard as patriotic resistance to the US presence.

Material from the Washington Post was included in this report.

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