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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Sadr Returns Najaf Mosque to Senior Cleric

With the hand-over, Iraqi forces take up positions nearby and U.S. troops pull back.

August 28, 2004|Ken Ellingwood and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

NAJAF, Iraq — Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani reassumed control over the Imam Ali shrine Friday, as a final handful of militiamen loyal to a rebel Shiite cleric exited the compound after a deadly three-week standoff with U.S. and Iraqi forces.

A group of clerics representing Sistani -- the top Shiite religious authority in Iraq -- reclaimed the keys to the shrine from the forces of young cleric Muqtada Sadr. Iraqi police and soldiers took up positions around the complex as U.S. troops, who were as close as 50 yards away, pulled back Friday afternoon.

The actions marked a peaceful end to the lengthy confrontation that had presented a serious challenge to interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and put the mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, at risk.

Sadr agreed early Friday to order his Al Mahdi militia to leave the mosque as part of an agreement brokered by Sistani to end the combat in Najaf's ordinarily tranquil Old City district. Tens of thousands of worshipers poured through the mosque complex for prayers Friday morning as the deal came together. Sistani had summoned followers from across Iraq to Najaf to march for peace.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Soldier's name -- On two occasions in August, articles in the A section included incorrect spellings for the name of a U.S. Army officer serving in Iraq. He is Maj. Douglas Ollivant, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.

Despite the fighters' departure, a Sadr spokesman said the agreement amounted to a victory because Sadr had withdrawn under a religious order from Sistani -- not as a result of pressure from the U.S. and the interim Iraqi government.

The agreement, accepted by Allawi, also appears to allow Sadr's militia to remain armed and for the cleric to remain free, despite earlier U.S. and Iraqi vows to arrest him in connection with the slaying of a rival cleric last year.

The Bush administration Friday praised the agreement. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, speaking on Fox News Radio, welcomed what he called "a resolution that did not require troops to go into that mosque."

At the same time, Pentagon officials acknowledged that with Sadr's militia intact and at least partly armed, the outcome, from a U.S. standpoint, was far from ideal. Throughout the standoff, U.S. military officers in Iraq had said the only acceptable resolution would be a full defeat of Sadr's forces and discrediting of the cleric.

In a document released by Sistani's office detailing the terms, the elder cleric demanded the departure of Sadr's fighters and "foreign forces" from Najaf and neighboring Kufa, a Sadr stronghold.

Sistani said Iraqi police should be solely in charge of security in the two cities. He urged the Iraqi government to compensate residents whose properties were damaged in the fighting, which included mortar strikes by Sadr's men and aerial bombing and tank fire by U.S. forces.

Sadr signed the list of demands, saying he was "ready to follow and execute them."

Sadr's forces had used the mosque compound as a base during the three-week standoff. Though U.S. and Iraqi forces had closed in, they never made a final push, apparently out of concerns about the repercussions if the site were damaged or destroyed.

Getting Sadr's militiamen out of the shrine provides some breathing room for Allawi's 2-month-old government and seems certain to enhance the standing of the 74-year-old Sistani, who had returned to Iraq on Thursday after three weeks of medical treatment in Britain for a heart ailment.

It is unclear, however, whether the standoff will be the last confrontation between Sadr and the government and what role, if any, the cleric will play in Iraqi electoral politics.

U.S. officials say more than 500 of Sadr's militiamen were killed during the standoff, a figure that Sadr's side says is exaggerated. The number of civilian casualties remains unclear. Eleven U.S. troops were killed and more than 100 wounded.

With the halt in fighting, the full scope of damage became clear along the streets and narrow alleys of Najaf's Old City. The district serves as the commercial center for the throngs of Shiite pilgrims who make their way each year to the Imam Ali shrine, a structure with twin minarets that is believed to have been first erected in the 8th century and rebuilt at various times.

Every direction offered a panorama of destruction: half-demolished buildings, fallen facades, an obstacle course of rubble. The odor of decomposing bodies hung over the scene.

To the south of the mosque compound, which appeared to have suffered minor damage, two blocks of hotels lay gutted and broken. At least 20 hotels were damaged or destroyed, including several that were being built as part of a development plan for the Old City that began before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

To the north, along the main street into the Old City, almost every structure was damaged. Storefronts were charred and crumpled, roofs and ceilings had caved in and some upper floors were missing entirely.

Children dug through the rubble Friday in search of anything valuable. On one street, a solitary boy who looked no more than 7 years old struggled to gather a thick tangle of copper electrical cable that had fallen.

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