NAJAF, Iraq, Reuters
Shiite militiamen fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces around a holy shrine in the city of Najaf are willing to negotiate to end the crisis, a spokesman for the leader of the rebellion said on Tuesday.
“We are ready to negotiate to put an end to the suffering,” Ali Smeisim told reporters, just hours after the interim government warned the Mehdi militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that they would be killed if they did not surrender.
Iraqi government forces moved into the battle zone around the shrine in Najaf for the first time on Tuesday and advanced to within 400 metersof the compound.
“God willing, we’ll be moving in tonight,” a commander of one unit told Reuters, adding that around 500 Iraqi troops had been deployed to the area around the Imam Ali mosque.
The advance was carried out by 50 servicemen and came after U.S. helicopters fired missiles and strafed militia positions in a cemetery that adjoins the mosque, where most of the Mehdi Army loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have holed up during a bloody three-week rebellion in the southern city.
A U.S. soldier guided the men in. They were shot at by Mehdi militiamen and returned fire.
In a related development, an Islamist group said it abducted an Italian journalist in Iraq and gave Rome 48 hours to announce it was pulling out its troops from the country or risk the life of the hostage, Al Jazeera television said on Tuesday.
The Italian appeared alone on a video tape and identified himself as Enzo Baldoni, a freelance writer who disappeared in Iraq in recent days. The tape also showed the man’s passport.
“I am Enzo Baldoni from Italy , I am 56 years old, I am a journalist and I do social work by volunteering with the Red Cross,” the man said.
The Arab satellite television said it received a statement from the group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq.
“The group said it could not guarantee the hostage’s safety or his life if Italy does not respond within 48 hours with a decision to withdraw its forces from Iraq,” Jazeera quoted the Arabic-language statement as saying.
Militants in Iraq have launched a campaign of kidnapping aimed at driving out individuals and firms supporting U.S. forces and the new Iraqi interim government. Some hostages have been freed but others have been killed.