Sadr Followers Turn In Heavy Weapons

Times Staff Writers

Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr began turning in their heavy weapons in exchange for cash today after a cease-fire agreement that was reached over the weekend.

Insurgents also launched a rocket attack in southern Baghdad today, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding five more. The military released no details.

In addition, two hostages were beheaded in video shown on an Islamic website today. The Associated Press reported that the captives, one a Turkish contractor and the other an Iraqi Kurdish translator, were killed by the Ansar al-Sunnah Army for working with Americans, according to a statement appearing on the video.

And video was broadcast on Al-Arabiya television today showing three hooded gunmen threatening to behead another Turkish hostage within three days unless the U.S. released Iraqi prisoners.

Insurgents at several checkpoints today turned in machine guns, land mines and other explosives, Maj. Kadhim Salman of the Iraqi police told the Associated Press. In return for weapons, they were given receipts, ranging from $5 for a hand grenade to $1,000 for a machine gun, that could be redeemed for cash.

Sadr's Al Mahdi militia has fought U.S.-led forces for weeks in Sadr City, a sprawling section of northeastern Baghdad that is home to 2 million people, mainly impoverished Shiites.

As the fighting has intensified, American warplanes have conducted almost nightly airstrikes there. The pounding is thought to have taken a heavy toll on Sadr's militia, forcing the talks with the Iraqi government.

The fighters also appear to be under pressure from fellow Sadr City residents who, despite sympathy with the home-grown insurgency, are tired of a conflict that has caused civilian casualties and massive property damage and has kept children from school.

Despite the agreement and a surprise visit to Iraq from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who urged U.S. troops to stiffen their resolve, violence continued over the weekend.

Car bombers struck again in the capital, killing at least 10 Iraqis and one U.S. soldier. Separately, a Marine died Saturday in western Iraq, military officials said Sunday, but the circumstances of the attack were not released.

Insurgents "are hoping they can win the test of wills," Rumsfeld told about 1,500 Marines at the Al Asad air base in western Iraq on Sunday. "It's a battle of morale."

During the unannounced appearance — his sixth trip to Iraq since the war began in March 2003 — Rumsfeld met with military leaders, U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have been coordinating closely to crush insurgents in their strongholds, including Samarra and Fallouja.

Rumsfeld warned that violence would probably continue in the coming months as insurgents attempted to destabilize Iraq before January's scheduled parliamentary election. He doesn't expect the U.S. to decrease troop levels before then.

"I don't see that we would have a reduction in U.S. and coalition forces between now and January," Rumsfeld told Marines who asked when they might return home.

Two car bombs exploded in Baghdad on Sunday morning shortly before the Defense secretary arrived, underscoring the continuing instability.

One appeared to target a U.S. military convoy as it passed an east Baghdad market. The attack at 7:15 a.m. fatally injured one soldier, who was taken to a military hospital and later died, the military said.

Another, deadlier blast occurred about the same time near the Oil Ministry offices and a police recruiting center, where jobseekers were lining up. It was the latest attack in a relentless campaign targeting Iraq's would-be security forces.

Most of the fatalities were police recruits and pedestrians, witnesses said. A female police officer was also killed.

The engine of the vehicle that contained the bomb was blown into a nearby Iraqi air force compound, and the blast left an all-too-familiar scene of devastation. A deep crater was carved out of the street, and body parts littered the area. U.S. soldiers treated some of the injured while others were taken to a nearby hospital.

"Many of the bodies were cut and burned black," said Ahmed Jawad, a guard at Al Kindi Hospital. Officials said 10 people died in the blast.

In a briefing in Baghdad on Sunday afternoon, Iraq's national security director, Kasim Daoud, said the government was continuing efforts to negotiate with insurgents in Fallouja and Sadr City — a restive Shiite Muslim district of Baghdad — even as it cracked down militarily south of the capital, where joint U.S.-Iraqi raids continued in Latifiya and Mahmoudiya.

"The purpose of all these operations is to prepare our country and make it secure for the upcoming general elections," he said.

Special correspondent Caesar Ahmed, along with the Associated Press, contributed to this report.

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