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Iraqi cleric open to disarming, spokesman says

No IDs on 4 mutilated bodies found near Baghdad

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BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr would disarm his militia and drop his conditions for negotiating with the U.S.-led coalition if Iraq's top Shiite spiritual body approves, his spokesman said Wednesday.

U.S. forces have been massing outside Najaf, where al-Sadr is, and have said they are ready to capture or kill the cleric.

The forces also have been fighting al-Sadr's militia, Mehdi Army, in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood and various southern towns.

"There were conditions that were set by Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr and those were that all coalition forces must pull out of the holy city of Najaf, the holy city of Karbala and any other holy city," Sheikh Qais al-Kahzaaly said at a news conference in Najaf.

The militia has a strong presence in Najaf and Karbala.

"Also, the prisoners who were arrested from the al-Sadr group must be released. Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr has agreed to drop these conditions if and only if the religious authority would agree to them first."

Al-Kahzaaly insisted the cities "will not be taken over by the American forces. The holy cities are for no one but the Muslim people and no one else. ... That's the way it is and the way it will always be."

One aide, Sheikh Hazem al-Araji, reiterated that al-Sadr is willing to appear before a court in connection with the killing of a rival cleric -- but only under a future legitimate government in Iraq and not while there is a coalition or U.S. presence in the country.

The battle with al-Sadr's forces began earlier this month after the coalition shut down his newspaper, Al Hawza, for allegedly inciting violence.

In a TV interview on Tuesday, al-Sadr said he was "ready to sacrifice" himself and called on Iraqis "not to allow my death to cause the collapse of the fight for freedom and an end to the occupation." (Full story)

Iraqi officials are trying to defuse the situation.

Iraqi Governing Council member Abdul-Karim Mahmoud al-Mohammedawi is traveling to Najaf and Karbala to talk with religious authorities.

Council spokesman Hamid Alkifaey said insurgents in Fallujah earlier this week twice tried to kill negotiator Hachim al-Hassani, a deputy to the Islamic Party member of the council, who was sent there to broker a cease-fire agreement between insurgents and U.S. forces.

"The aim was to kill him and kill any hopes of ending this crisis," said Alkifaey.

Abductions by insurgents

The Al-Jazeera TV network said Wednesday it has received a videotape that a group of Iraqi hostage-takers calling themselves "The Mujahedeen Brigade" says shows the killing of one of four Italians being held in Iraq.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told state television that the Italian ambassador to Qatar viewed a portion of the videotaped execution and confirmed that the slain hostage was Fabrizio Quattrocchi, who was working in Iraq as a private security guard.

Al-Jazeera said it did not broadcast the tape because it was too graphic.

In a statement delivered with the tape, the hostage-takers blamed Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi for Quattrocchi's slaying, Al-Jazeera reported.

The network said the statement blamed Berlusconi for responding to the kidnapping of the four by saying that "pulling out of Iraq was totally out of the question," and went on to say that the hostage-takers will kill one hostage at a time until all their demands are met.

CNN has not seen the tape and has no way of determining if it is authentic. (Full story)

Meantime, authorities continue efforts to identify four other bodies found near Baghdad, according to U.S. State Department officials.

The mutilated bodies were found on the outskirts of the capital, an official said.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has notified the energy-services firm Halliburton Co. of the discovery of the bodies.

Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, employed seven contractors who have gone missing in Iraq, one of whom is confirmed to be a hostage.

Insurgents kidnapped truck driver Thomas Hamill during an ambush Friday on a fuel convoy near the Baghdad airport and threatened to kill him if U.S. troops were not withdrawn from Fallujah by the next day.

About 40 people from 12 countries are being held by Iraqi militants, Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, said Tuesday.

French TV network Capa said Wednesday that one of its reporters held hostage in Iraq has been released in Baghdad.

Other developments

  • Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special adviser exploring the Iraqi political process, said Wednesday he is optimistic that a caretaker government can be put together for the June 30 handover of sovereignty to Iraq. Speaking to reporters in Baghdad, Brahimi said he envisions a caretaker government led by a prime minister, a president to act as a head of state and two vice presidents in a time period leading up to national elections for an interim assembly in January.
  • Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has approved a plan to extend the combat tours of roughly 20,000 troops now in Iraq for three months to meet a request for more troops made by U.S. central Commander Gen. John Abizaid, Pentagon officials confirmed Wednesday. The decision could be announced as early Thursday at the Pentagon briefing, sources said. The move officially scrapped the Pentagon's plans to draw down the U.S. force in Iraq from 135,000 to 115,000 this spring and breaks a promise made to the troops last year, when their tours were extended to one year.
  • John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is Bush's choice for U.S. ambassador to Iraq once sovereignty is transferred to a new Iraqi government, administration sources said. Negroponte would replace L. Paul Bremer when the Coalition Provisional Authority is dissolved, the sources said. A formal announcement is expected in the next few days.
  • The United States has asked Iran to help defuse violence in Iraq, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Wednesday. The spokesman said U.S. representatives passed along a letter to Iran requesting the help. He said a delegation is headed to Iraq on Thursday to survey the situation and to try to talk with local leaders. Iran is a Shiite Muslim country and has important links in Iraq, where Shiites account for about 60 percent of the population.
  • CNN's Ryan Chilcote, Caroline Faraj, Jaime FlorCruz, John King, Octavia Nasr, Jamie McIntyre, Claudia Otto, Elise Labott and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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