NAJAF, Iraq – Iraqi officials and aides to a radical Shiite cleric negotiated Friday to end fighting that has raged in Najaf for nine days, after American forces suspended an offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr's (search) militia. Al-Sadr's aides said he was wounded by shrapnel, but Iraqi officials said the cleric was involved in the talks.
In the southern city of Basra, gunmen briefly seized a British journalist and threatened to kill him unless coalition forces withdrew from Najaf (search), but they let him go after al-Sadr's aides intervened.
A top al-Sadr aide, Sheik Ali Smeisim, said the cleric wanted a U.S. withdrawal from Najaf and the freeing of all Mahdi Army fighters in detention in exchange, among other demands, for him disarming his followers and ending the fighting.
U.S. troops and Iraqi officials want to ensure that any new truce would eliminate the flaws of the previous truces, which ended a two-month uprising in early June. Al-Sadr militants repeatedly violated that cease-fire, shooting at police and burying caches of weapons in the cemetery and using the time to regroup, according to U.S. officials and witnesses.
With negotiations under way, the U.S. military said it suspended offensive operations against al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen, who are holed up in the city's vast cemetery and the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites to Shiite Muslims.
"We are allowed to engage the enemy only in self-defense and long enough to break contact," said Maj. Bob Pizzitola, executive officer for the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. "That was a blanket order for everybody."
He said the militia appeared to have stopped most attacks as well, and the city appeared quieter just one day after the U.S. military launched a major offensive.
"Hopefully, the talks will go well and everything will be resolved peacefully," Pizzitola said.
By Friday afternoon, there was no sign of U.S. or Iraqi forces inside the old city and there were no sounds of clashes.
"We are now celebrating the victory. This means the defeat of the other side," al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said.
The U.S. military said it was still maintaining a loose cordon around the old city, but had repositioned troops after the offensive was suspended.
The U.S. Defense Department (search) said about 2,200 Marines, along with 500 to 1,000 soldiers and an undisclosed number of U.S.-trained Iraqi troops, were involved in Thursday's offensive.
Also Friday, U.S. airstrikes hit Fallujah, witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of injuries. The U.S. military had no immediate comment, but U.S. forces have fought with militants holed up in that Sunni Muslim city for months.
One of Iraq's most senior Shiite religious leaders called for an end to the Najaf battle, as Iraqis took to the streets across the country to protest the fighting.
"What is going on in Najaf and the rest of the Iraqi cities is a violation of sanctities, an aggression on holy sites and shedding of innocent blood that could lead to a vicious civil war," Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi said during Friday prayers in Karbala.
"I call on everyone to shun violence, stop all military operations and for the immediate withdrawal the troops from the cities."
Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi said negotiations were being held between officials of Iraq's interim government and al-Sadr's representatives, without participation by U.S. officials. National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie and Defense Minister Hazem Shalan were both in Najaf, Iraqi officials said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said all activities in Najaf were being "closely coordinated" between coalition forces and the Iraqi leadership.
"What's at stake there is no different than what's at stake anywhere in the country: 25 million Iraqi people that have been liberated are on a path toward a free and democratic system. To the extent that people use violence to try to prevent that, they'll be stopped," Rumsfeld said in Partenit, Ukraine.
Al-Sadr has led an uprising against coalition troops for more than a week. An aide, Haider al-Tousi, said the cleric was hit in the chest and leg by shrapnel as he met with militia members near the Imam Ali shrine early Friday, and another aide said his condition was stable.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry said al-Sadr was not wounded and had been involved in the negotiations since Friday morning. Reports about his injury are "an attempt to incite others aiming at escalating the situation," a ministry statement said.
But in Washington, a senior U.S. official, when asked whether al-Sadr had been wounded, said, "That is our understanding." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States learned of al-Sadr's condition from Iraqi sources and did not know anything about the circumstances.
Al-Sadr urged his followers to remain calm.
"We got a letter from him saying: 'Be steadfast and behave rationally. Don't surrender to your emotions,"' Aws al-Khafaji, at al-Sadr's office in the southern town of Nasiriyah, told Al-Jazeera television.
In a sermon read on his behalf during Friday prayers at the Kufa Mosque, al-Sadr said the United States was intent on "occupying the whole world."
"The presence of occupation in Iraq has made our country an unbearable hell," he said. He called on Iraqis to rebel "because I will not allow another Saddam-like government again."
In Basra, police said 30 gunmen abducted British journalist James Andrew Brandon, 23, of the Sunday Telegraph from the Diafa Hotel late Thursday. A video given to Associated Press Television News showed Brandon standing bare-chested with his head bandaged.
The militants said they took Brandon hostage to protest the U.S. military presence in Najaf and threatened to kill him within 24 hours if coalition troops did not leave the city. But he was later brought to al-Sadr's office in Basra and freed.
At an impromptu news conference, Brandon said the kidnappers' attitude changed when Ahmed al-Khalisy, head of the al-Sadr office, condemned his kidnapping and called for his immediate release. He said the gunmen had beaten him and at one point even used an unloaded gun in a mock execution.
Kidnappers in Iraq have seized dozens of hostages in recent months, threatening to kill them in an effort to force out coalition forces and companies that support them.