Najaf talks fail, threatening new Iraq bloodshed

NAJAF, Iraq, Reuters

Talks to end the conflict in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf collapsed on Saturday, raising the prospect of renewed fighting between U.S. troops and radical Shiite militiamen challenging the country’s interim government.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s government vowed an immediate resumption of a military crackdown in Najaf, where Iraqi troops have coordinated with U.S. forces against guerrillas of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Iraq’s national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said the Najaf talks had failed and a Sadr spokesman blamed the breakdown on Allawi.

“The talks have failed. All efforts to end this have not succeeded,” Rubaie told reporters.

“The Iraqi interim government is resuming military clearing operations to…establish law and order in the holy city,” he told a news conference.

Militants loyal to Sadr have been battling U.S. and Iraqi forces in the sacred city of Najaf for 10 days in fighting that has killed hundreds and sent thousands of protesters onto the streets.

A truce had held since Friday but the collapse of the talks threatened a return to violence. Sadr has vowed a fight to the death to defend the holy city.

The collapse of the talks came on the eve of a national conference aimed at advancing Iraq’s progress towards democracy, already overshadowed by the Shiite Muslim uprising.

The national conference aims to pick a 100-member council to oversee the government after it opens in Baghdad on Sunday.

Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. forces said they killed about 50 insurgents near the northern Iraqi town of Samarra on Saturday, a ainly Sunni Muslim area where U.S. troops have launched repeated raids to flush out guerrillas opposed to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

Warplanes screaming overhead dropped 500-lb (225 kg) bombs, while insurgents responded with rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades, a U.S. military statement said, adding there were no U.S. casualties.

Casting doubt on the U.S. toll, Iraqi police in Samarra said at least five people had been killed and 50 wounded in fighting in the area, 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad.