Al-Sadr says militia will leave Najaf mosque
Iraqi militants threaten to kill journalist
An Iraqi crosses a street as U.S. soldiers patrol the city of Najaf on Wednesday.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced Wednesday his militia would leave the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, following a threat by the Iraqi government to "liberate" the holy site.
In a letter issued by al-Sadr's office in Baghdad and read to the Iraqi National Conference, the cleric said he agreed to demands made Tuesday night by a delegation from the conference that he and his forces leave the mosque, disband his Mehdi Army and "enter into the mainstream political process."
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Iraqi leaders attending the conference in Baghdad picked a 100-person council to advise and oversee the interim government, the caretaker body running Iraq until a transitional national assembly is elected in January.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry said late Wednesday it was surprised to hear of al-Sadr's apparent concession, since the cleric refused to meet with the eight-person delegation sent to Najaf in a bid to resolve the two-week standoff between militia fighters and U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces.
The delegation spent three hours at the Imam Ali mosque Tuesday night without seeing al-Sadr and returned to Baghdad early Wednesday. Peacemaking efforts over the weekend also failed.
The delegates did talk with some of the cleric's top deputies and presented them with a letter asking al-Sadr's militia to leave the shrine, dissolve itself and join the political process in Iraq.
"If we are surprised by this announcement, it's because the Iraqi government has done all it could to resolve this situation," the Defense Ministry said, reiterating its demand that al-Sadr's militia disarm.
"When that is done, all potential repercussions against Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers will be halted," a statement from the ministry said.
Al-Sadr had previously vowed to fight to his death.
Al-Sadr's letter to the national conference arrived shortly after Iraqi interim Defense Minister Hazem Sha'alan said the government had completed preparations for a military operation to "liberate the holy shrine" and regain Najaf "from the gang of mercenaries."
Sha'alan said in an interview with Arabic-language television network Al-Arabiya that Iraqi troops would enter the holy sites in Najaf in a swift operation and said he expected a "decisive battle."
"We will teach those people a lesson in their lives, which they will never forget," said Sha'alan, pointing to fighters in Najaf and in other key Iraqi cities.
Sha'alan later told reporters that al-Sadr's forces "have a chance during the coming hours to lay down their weapons and surrender."
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi later issued a statement saying the government "will not stand with arms folded in the face" of the rebellion by al-Sadr's militia.
"The government's position is clear and specific to ending armed manifestations, stopping acts of sabotage and making the armed men leave Najaf and the mosque," Allawi said.
A Marine assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was killed Wednesday as fighting continued in the city throughout the day, the U.S. military said.
Al-Sadr's militia fighters have launched "sporadic attacks" on 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit forces, which "remain in a defense posture" in the large cemetery near the mosque, a Marine spokeswoman said.
A boy was killed and two others were wounded Wednesday when mortar rounds struck a house near the city governor's office, police said. Police blamed the attacks on al-Sadr's militia.
Videotape: Militants set deadline for journalist
In a videotape aired Wednesday on the Arabic language television network Al-Jazeera, armed militants threatened to kill a kidnapped Western journalist if U.S. forces do not withdraw from Najaf within 48 hours.
In a video that aired on Al-Jazeera, masked men threatened to kill journalist Micah Garen.
In the video, journalist Micah Garen sits on the floor as a militant kneels behind him reading a statement and four others stand brandishing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. All five militants are masked. The group called itself the Martyrs Brigade.
Garen, a 36-year-old French journalist who carries a U.S. passport, was kidnapped Friday in a busy market in the southern city of Nasiriya along with his Iraqi translator, Amir Doshe.
Garen, who works for New York-based Four Corners Media, was in Iraq working on a documentary about archeological sites and antiquities endangered by the ongoing war.
Other developmentsA U.S. soldier was killed Wednesday when a patrol was attacked in eastern Baghdad and a Marine died after a vehicle accident in western Iraq's Al Anbar province, the U.S. military said. The number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war stood at 951 as of Wednesday. Of those, 709 have died in hostile action and 242 from nonhostile activity, according to the U.S. military.A British soldier was killed Tuesday during a gunbattle with insurgents in the southern city of Basra, Defense Ministry officials said. Sixty-five British troops have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.Two detainees were killed and five others were wounded Wednesday during a fight involving more than 200 prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, according to the coalition press office. A news release said "lethal force" was used after verbal warnings and "nonlethal rounds" failed to break up the brawl. An Army report will recommend that approximately two dozen military intelligence personnel face possible disciplinary action in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, military sources said. The report, expected to be released as early as next week, will find that the abuse was not ordered by senior commanders as part of approved interrogation practices, the sources said. The military intelligence brigade commander was found to have allowed a lack of discipline in his unit but was not criminally responsible for the abuse, the report will say.
CNN's Kevin Flower, Cal Perry, Kianne Sadeq, Barbara Starr and John Vause contributed to this report.
contributed to this report.