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Shi'ite Leader Calls for Negotiations to Ease Anti-Coalition Rebellion - 2004-04-08

Iraq's leading Shi'ite Muslim group is calling for negotiations to defuse an anti-coalition rebellion by followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

A spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq says a deal should be struck with Moqtada al-Sadr to end a Shi'ite Muslim uprising in which scores of people have been killed this week.

The official, Hamid al-Bayati, told British radio in an interview from Baghdad that a coalition offensive against Mr. al-Sadr's militia will only make the rebellion worse.

?I think, we could defuse the situation, if we resorted to peaceful means, rather than violence with him,? Mr. al-Bayati said. ?I think the best way is to negotiate. I think we can give some demands to his followers. Maybe he will give himself up. And in the end of the day, negotiations will decide what direction the Americans should go, rather than to go with full confrontation and escalation,? he added.

But there is no sign the U.S.-led coalition will ease the pressure. The commander of ground forces in Iraq, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, talked tough at a Baghdad news conference.

?Let there be no doubt, we will continue the attacks until al-Sadr's influence is eliminated and al-Sadr's militia is no longer a threat to Iraq and its citizens,? Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez said.

The United States wants Mr. al-Sadr arrested for conspiracy in the murder of another cleric last year. U.S. authorities also have closed a Sadr-run newspaper, and have arrested one of his closest aides.

Mr. al-Bayati says many Iraqis wonder why the United States waited so long to act against Mr. al-Sadr.

?Everybody is asking why now, why not some time ago, because the murder they are accusing him of taking part in took place a year ago. So, people are not buying this story,? Mr. al-Bayati said.

Mr. al-Bayati is the former London representative of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and he is a senior aide to the Shi'ite group's leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who sits on the interim Iraqi Governing Council.

In another development, Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi told the Arabic television station al-Jazeera that discussions are under way with Mr. al-Sadr to end the rebellion. He says the cleric's honor and security would be respected. General Sanchez acknowledged that talks are under way, but he said the coalition will not deviate from its goal of re-establishing security in areas where the al-Sadr militia has been operating.