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Aug 15 2004

Iraq: Massacre fears as Najaf peace talks collapse; Sunni city bombed Athens: Blair signs ‘sham’ truce


US warplanes yesterday bombed the Sunni stronghold of Samarra and the fragile ceasefire in Najaf abruptly ended amid fears of an impending “massacre” ... yet British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed up to an Olympic Truce in Athens.

The truce, which called for a halt to conflict and for peace and reconciliation during the Games, was signed by 450 world leaders and international personalities. US President George Bush declined.

As Blair added his signature, fears were growing that the failure of peace talks between the new interim government and fighters loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr would lead to more deaths.

Thousands were reported to be flocking to Najaf to support al-Sadr, who now expects Iraq’s interim prime minister Ayad Allawi to order an attack on the holy mosque in which the rebel leader is claiming sanctuary.

An al-Sadr aide blamed the failure of the peace talks on Allawi. He claimed agreement had been reached on all points, but that the interim prime minister had ordered an end to negotiation and told his officials to return to Baghdad.

Those around al-Sadr, who is believed to have been slightly wounded in attacks near the Imam Ali shrine, predicted Najaf could now become the site of “a massacre”.

The US military estimates that hundreds of insurgents have been killed in the fighting that began in Najaf on August 5. The violence has now spread to other Shiite communities throughout Iraq and drawn in supporters from other parts of the Middle East. Some 40 people were killed during fighting in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, on Friday. The US military said up to 50 ‘‘insurgents’’ militants had been killed when warplanes, responding to mortar attacks on US troops, attacked the largely Sunni city of Samarra in the early hours yesterday.

British forces were engaged in fighting in Basra earlier last week and in the southern Iraqi city of Amarah. In fierce exchanges with al-Sadr-supporting Mahdi army militias, British troops attacked positions used to launch grenade and mortar attacks on coalition troops.

15 August 2004