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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Iraqi Clerics Reach Peace Deal in Najaf

Sadr's forces begin leaving the shrine after followers of Grand Ayatollah Sistani march to the city. The accord suspends the fighting.

August 27, 2004|Ken Ellingwood and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

NAJAF, Iraq — Iraq's revered Shiite Muslim leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, brokered a deal for the withdrawal of a radical cleric's forces from this city's sacred mosque compound early today, an action that suspended three weeks of fighting that had left scores dead.

On a loudspeaker outside Imam Ali Mosque, an announcement attributed to the cleric, Muqtada Sadr, asked his remaining fighters in the compound to leave by 10 a.m.

"Do not be sad, for you have done your utmost," the announcement said. "If you do not follow these orders, then you will bring problems to me and to you."

Within 1 1/2 hours of the order, militiamen were collecting weapons and ammunition on wooden carts and stretchers outside the mosque. A group of fighters chanted Sadr's name as they wheeled AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades and ammunition belts through the plaza.

It was not immediately clear what would be done with the weapons.

Thousands of people who had been called to Najaf by Sistani entered the shrine, stopping to pray and then filing out. The militiamen could blend in with the crowd as it left the Old City.

Television footage showed the crowd inside the mosque was calm and no weapons were in evidence. All of the visitors, along with Sadr's militia, appeared to have left the shrine before its doors were closed about 10:15 a.m.

The agreement to end the standoff, reported by aides to Sistani and an official of the interim Iraqi government, came hours after the ayatollah's unexpected return from Britain, where he underwent three weeks of medical treatment.

Sistani's spokesman had publicly called on Iraqi authorities Thursday to allow the ayatollah's followers, who had gathered on the city outskirts, to flood into town and pray at the shrine early this morning.

Shortly after dawn, thousands of devotees marched down the main street of Najaf's Old City and into the grounds of the mosque, which Sadr's militia had occupied for months. The crowd chanted "God is great" and other religious slogans.

Small-arms fire could be heard nearby, but it was unclear whether it was celebratory or hostile. U.S. troops were under orders not to interfere with people leaving the mosque, but could return fire if attacked.

Plainclothes men checked for weapons as the marchers filtered through the gates of the compound shortly after 7 a.m. No Iraqi police officers, Iraqi national guardsmen or U.S. troops were visible nearby.

Under the terms of the deal announced by Sistani's aides, U.S. troops would pull out of Najaf, security in the city would be turned over to Iraqi police, and Sadr and his fighters would be allowed to remain free.

The marchers appeared upbeat but reverential as they entered the compound. One, a 57-year-old railroad engineer from Basra, expressed satisfaction that the long standoff between Sadr's militia and Iraqi and U.S. military forces appeared to be ending, at least for the moment.

"We wanted an end to the problems," Mudhir Ifrit said. "We're all Muslims and we're all Shiite brothers."

In Washington, the State Department had reacted cautiously late Thursday, noting that the exact terms of the agreement remained unclear. Officials called on all involved to help restore order to the city.

"We urge all parties to play a constructive role in reestablishing law and order in Najaf," department spokeswoman Darla Jordan said.

She said the U.S. military -- which has fought fierce battles with Sadr's militia in Najaf's massive cemetery and the alleys and buildings of its Old City -- would respect a cease-fire called Thursday by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

"The most important thing now is the holy city of Najaf and how to end the crisis and stop the fighting," Sistani spokesman Hamid Khafaf told reporters outside a walled home where he said Sistani, Sadr and their entourages held talks Thursday.

The post-midnight accord capped an extraordinary day that included battles and bombings and a massive convergence of Sistani's followers on the city.

Three weeks of skirmishes have caused heavy damage in Najaf and cost hundreds of lives, including those of 11 Americans, U.S. authorities say.

The fighting has seriously threatened the government of Allawi, who took a hard line against the militiamen -- with U.S. military assistance -- but avoided storming the mosque out of fear of a backlash from Shiites around the world.

Early Thursday, police said, mortar shells hit a mosque in neighboring Kufa, killing at least two dozen worshipers, many of whom had apparently come to show their support for Sistani. It was unclear Thursday who was responsible. U.S. forces said they had not fired in the area. It was the latest of several recent violent incidents in the town. Sadr regularly led Friday prayers at the mosque, whose walls were damaged by the blasts.

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