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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

With Apparent Relief, Sadr Militiamen Make Way for Pilgrims

August 27, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — The young fighter, barely a man, clutched his assault rifle, perhaps for the last time.

He did not seem disappointed.

"We want a solution," said Mustafa Karim, 20, one of dozens of militiamen who were preparing to disarm this morning upon the apparent orders of their leader, rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr. "God willing, we have a solution."

Karim, who is jobless and lives in the huge Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, had taken part in the standoff at the Imam Ali Mosque in this holy city since it began three weeks ago.

Like other members of Sadr's militia, Karim greeted news of the order to depart, leaving weapons behind, with something approaching relief. "Whatever the Sayyed says," the young man said, referring to Sadr. He echoed the reactions of several other militiamen after the withdrawal announcement, said to be from Sadr, was made over loudspeakers outside the shrine.

The fighters mingled with tens of thousands of male worshipers who filed through Najaf's Old City, which was been heavily damaged in fighting between the militia and U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Some buildings had gaping holes or were missing upper floors. Others were charred by explosions. Electrical lines dangled over streets littered with rubble and broken glass.

The outer wall of the mosque compound also was damaged -- a 3-by-4-foot section of decorative tile was missing above the large wooden gates in the wall.

Worshipers from across Iraq were funneled to the gate, where men in civilian clothes checked them for weapons. An announcement on the loudspeaker urged the pilgrims not to enter the mosque with anyone carrying weapons.

Outside, the faithful joined chants praising God, the prophet Muhammad and Sadr.

A cluster of militiamen keeping guard nearby at one of the Old City's alleys stood impassively, still holding their weapons. A few feet away, one young man who appeared to be in his teens sat on the sidewalk with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher propped at his feet.

Karim, meanwhile, warned that any cease-fire would be short-lived as long as American troops remained in Iraqi cities:

"This will erupt again. There will be another battle."

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