Al-Sadr militiamen leave shrine, hand over keys as peace deal takes hold in Najaf

Tuesday, August 24th 2004, 6:14 am
By: News On 6

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) _ Thousands of pilgrims streamed into the Imam Ali Shrine on Friday and militants left, handing the keys to Shiite religious authorities after Iraq's top Shiite cleric brokered a peace deal to end three weeks of fighting in this holy city.

Dozens of Iraqi police and national guardsmen deployed around the compound of the walled, golden-domed shrine in the Old City Friday afternoon _ but did not enter. Some kissed the compound's gates, others burst into tears. Some residents of the devastated Old City neighborhood waved to them and yelled out, ``Welcome. Welcome.''

Militants piled Kalashnikov rifles in front of the offices of their leader, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Thousands of al-Sadr's militiamen were still believed to be armed in the city, though most were staying off the streets. In one narrow alley, some fighters could be seen pushing carts full of machine-guns and rocket launchers.

Iraqi forces took control of the Old City, the neighborhood of winding alleys where the shrine is located, and U.S. forces appeared to have maintained their positions in the Old City.

A Marine spokeswoman, Capt. Carrie C. Batson, said the Americans would remain in place ``until further notice'' to ``ensure implementation of the terms of the cease-fire,'' adding that U.S. forces were working at the Iraqi government's request. The peace deal calls on U.S. troops to leave, but there was no word when that would happen.

Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which has risen up against U.S. forces twice this year, remains intact and al-Sadr will not be arrested under the peace deal sealed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric.

But the transfer of the Imam Ali Shrine, one of Shia Islam's holiest sites, robs them of a refuge and stronghold that helped them stand up against U.S. forces. American forces could not assault the shrine for fear of enraging Iraq's Shiite majority.

The Bush administration welcomed the agreement but expressed caution, given its suspicions about al-Sadr.

``We're still trying to get additional details about all the terms of the agreement,'' White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. ``We welcome these steps to resolve the situation surrounding the shrine of Ali without further violence and we support the efforts of the Iraqi government to make sure that the rule of law applies throughout the country.''

The fighting in the city since Aug. 5 killed hundreds of Iraqis and nine U.S. troops, ravaging parts of the Old City and threatening the control of Iraq's interim government.

After a day of prayers and celebrations at the shrine civilians and fighters left, and al-Sadr's followers handed over the keys to the site to religious authorities loyal to al-Sistani.

``Now the holy shrine compound has been evacuated and its keys have been handed over to the religious authority,'' al-Sistani aide Hamed al-Khafaf told Al-Arabiya television.

Al-Sadr ordered his fighters to lay down their arms and leave Najaf and neighboring Kufa after agreeing to the peace deal in a face-to-face meeting the night before with al-Sistani.

``To all my brothers in Mahdi Army ... you should leave Kufa and Najaf without your weapons, along with the peaceful masses,'' al-Sadr said in a statement broadcast over the shrine's loudspeakers.

Iraq's interim government also accepted the deal. Police briefly exchanged fire with militants in one part of town Friday, and some U.S. troops were still receiving occasional sniper fire. Nevertheless, most of the city was calm.

Al-Sistani's highly publicized, 11th-hour peace mission boosts his already high prestige in Iraq and cloaks him in a statesman's mantle, showing that only he could force an accord between two sides that loathe each other.

In the morning, thousands of Shiites marched through Najaf to visit the shrine. Many kissed its doors as they entered, chanting ``Thanks to God!''

U.S. soldiers looked on as people passed in the streets, heading to the shrine. Army 1st Lt. Chris Kent said the peace agreement ``appears to be a final resolution. That's what it looks like right now.''

Inside, the crowds mingled with Mahdi Army fighters and performed noon prayers. Afterwards, civilians and militiamen streamed out, with some militants chanting ``Muqtada, Muqtada.''

By the afternoon, the shrine appeared empty, clear of the visitors and the militants.

Police later set up roadblocks on the edge of the Old City, preventing people from entering and searching throngs of people leaving the shrine for weapons

The 75-year-old al-Sistani returned to Iraq after heart treatment in London to intervene for the first time in the bloody conflict, drawing thousands of followers who marched on Najaf and massed on its outskirts.

Al-Sistani's five-point peace plan calls for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf, for police to be in charge of security, for the government to compensate those harmed by the fighting, and for a census to be taken to prepare for elections expected in the country by January.

Iraq State Minister Qassim Dawoud said U.S. and coalition forces would pull out of Najaf as soon as interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi ordered it.

Dawoud added that the government would not try to arrest al-Sadr, who is sought in the slaying of a rival cleric last year. The government has said it wants al-Sadr to turn his militia into a political party.

In Baghdad, guerrillas attacked a U.S. patrol four times with grenades wounding 12 U.S. soldiers, the Army said. Four suspects were detained on suspicion of involvement in the attacks, the Army said in a statement.

Also, U.S. warplanes bombed positions in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, witnesses said. There was no immediate word on casualties or damage.

In the northern city of Mosul, a car bomb exploded as a U.S. military convoy moved through a traffic circle on the western edge of the city, wounding 10 Iraqi civilians and a U.S. soldier, said Army Capt. Angela Bowman.

A gunbattle between U.S. forces and militants erupted Friday in central Baghdad's Haifa Street on Friday, according to an Associated Press photographer on the scene. U.S. troops sealed off the area and explosions could be heard as helicopter gunships circled overhead.

Also, a U.S. soldier was killed in a vehicle accident and a second seriously injured near the volatile city of Fallujah, the military said.

Meanwhile, an Arab-language television station said Friday that it received still pictures showing the killing of kidnapped Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, whom militants had threatened to execute if Italy did not withdraw troops from Iraq.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, condemned the reported slaying and repeated his statement of Tuesday that Italy's 3,000 soldiers would not abandon the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq's government.