BAGHDAD, April 20 (UPI) -- U.S. troops began to withdraw from a base near the city of Najaf Monday, signaling an unwillingness to enter the Shiite holy city in pursuit of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose militia the U.S.-led coalition has vowed to crush, and to capture the rebel cleric "dead or alive."
Some 2,500 U.S. Army soldiers encircled the home of the holiest shrine of Shiite Islam last week after Sadr -- who also faces murder charges for the death of a rival cleric last year -- openly defied U.S. occupation authorities and let his Mehdi Army fight coalition troops in Baghdad and several southern Iraqi cities.
Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told the 3rd Brigade Task Force that the withdrawal was intended to ease tensions with Iraq's 60 percent Shiite population.
"The problem of Sadr is bigger than Sadr. It is the whole Shiite community and the holy shrine," Sanchez said. "We have just about eliminated all his influence across the south."
Sanchez emphasized that the main issue was concern about fighting the cleric and his militia among holy shrines that if damaged could further polarize Iraq's Shiite against the occupation. The top religious leader of the Iraqi Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, while withholding any endorsement of Sadr's willingness to fight the American forces, has warned against any assault of Najaf, where he also resides.
"The real center of mess is right here," Sanchez said. "The problem is that if we launch you into the city of Najaf and we get you into a major firefight. And if we get into destroying the holy shrines, it will create a backlash."
Although the troops will be pulled away from their forward operating base about 10-miles outside Najaf, Sanchez vowed to confront Sadr in future conflicts and repeated the desire of U.S. forces to "kill or capture" the 31-year old cleric.
Sadr had been a gadfly critic of the U.S. occupation since the fall of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime just over a year ago, but despite his formation of his own militia, the Mehdi Army, U.S. officials were content to mostly ignore the junior cleric, who commanded far less respect from Iraq's Shiite population than other senior clerics such as Sistani.
But just as U.S. troops were beginning an offensive against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah -- where violent opposition to the occupation has been consistent from the beginning -- the top civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, made the inexplicable decision to suspend Sadr's newspaper for publishing anti-coalition materials.
But even as tens of thousands of Sadr's supporters began peaceful demonstrations against the newspaper decision, coalition forces then arrested a top aide to Sadr on a nearly year-old murder charge, sparking an uprising from the Shiite population for the first time.
Bremer's decision to directly confront Sadr raised the junior cleric's standing in the eyes of many Iraqis, who had previously dismissed him as an opportunist capitalizing on his father's stature as a very influential cleric killed by Saddam in 1999.
After several days of fighting in Baghdad and a slew of southern cities, Sadr's supporters -- who increased from merely uneducated and unemployed young men from the poorest neighborhoods in Iraq to a broader spectrum of disaffected Iraqi Shiites -- managed to seize control of several cities and parts of the capital.
After the mini-revolution caught the U.S. forces -- which were still fighting a slow and bloody siege of Fallujah -- off guard, Sadr then fled his mosque in the small town of Kufa for Najaf, where surrounded by supporters, he defied the U.S. military to arrest him.
But because Najaf contains the shrine to the Imam Ali, the holiest figure in Shiite Islam, any assault on the city would have likely drawn the ire of more moderate and tolerant clerics, such as Sistani. And a call by Sistani for violent opposition to the U.S. occupation would likely result in fighting that could not be easily managed by U.S. forces. The forceful entry of American troops into Shiism's holiest city would infuriate Shiites from Pakistan, Iran and Lebanon.
With tensions in Najaf easing as the U.S. military backs down from that fight, the situation in Fallujah appears to have -- at least temporarily -- stabilized as U.S. Marines have halted their two-week siege of the city of 250,000 people, which was sparked by the killing and mutilation of four armed U.S. contract employees more than three weeks ago.
After a week of ceasefires mostly ignored by both sides, Iraqi negotiators were able to persuade both sides to agree to a truce under which the Fallujah resistance, called the Army of Mohammed, will turn in its heavy weapons in exchange for an end to the U.S. siege.
Tuesday saw limited numbers of Iraqi security forces re-enter the city in an attempt to restore some coalition control to the hotbed of anti-U.S. sentiment. And some of the thousands of refugees who had fled the fighting were returning to the city by foot, as the U.S. military has refused to allow vehicles into the city.
The three weeks of fighting in April have killed more than 100 U.S. soldiers and, by most reports, over 1,000 Iraqis, making the month the bloodiest for the U.S. military since the start of the war last March.