Secretary of State Colin Powell says U.S. forces are trying to "stabilize" the situation in the Iraqi city of Najaf while avoiding harm to the Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest shrine in Shia Islam. In comments Friday, Mr. Powell said it is the fault of Iraqi extremists that an "Olympic truce" is not being observed in Iraq.
The United States was among the many co-sponsors last year of a Greek U.N. General Assembly resolution that called on nations around the world involved in conflicts to observe a traditional cease-fire during the Olympics.
But the games in Athens are opening against a backdrop of widespread violence in Iraq including fighting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where U.S.-led forces have been battling the so-called "Madhi Army" of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
At a press appearance with Canada's new Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew, Secretary of State Colin Powell called the Olympic truce a "noble effort" which coalition forces in Iraq would be observing were there not continuing attacks by the al-Sadr forces and other Iraqi extremists.
"Unfortunately the world does not stop entirely for the Olympics, and in this case the violence is being perpetrated by outlaws and former regime elements and terrorists who respect no truce, who respect nothing except force," he said. "And as long as those individuals do not understand the spirit of peace and reconciliation, are not willing to work for a democratic free Iraq, they have to be dealt with."
Mr. Powell said U.S.-led forces are seeking to stabilize the situation in Najaf as the Iraqi interim government seeks a negotiated end to more than a week of deadly clashes. He said coalition troops aim to put a military squeeze on the al-Sadr militia forces while avoiding damage to the city's Shiite shrine.
"What we are trying to do is to stabilize the situation, end the fighting there, deal with those who try to continue fighting. We do not in any way wish to get involved with the mosque," he said. "It's a very holy place for all Shia and we hope that a solution will be found in the very near future. But is has to be a solution that ends this kind of outlaw activity on the part of the Madhi Army and similar organizations."
Canadian Foreign Minister Pettigrew, whose country is not part of the Iraq coalition, said Mr. Powell made no request for Canadian action beyond its sizable commitments to Iraqi reconstruction.
Mr. Pettigrew, on his first trip outside Canada since taking the new cabinet post last month, said he and Mr. Powell discussed their shared concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
He said they also discussed human rights issues in Iran including what he termed the "assassination" last year of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian journalist of Iranian origin who died in an Iranian prison last year.
Mr. Pettigrew said the Ottawa government has gotten no cooperation on the case from Iranian authorities, who he said have treated the matter as a "farce." He said he would press the issue next month at the United Nations.