Al-Sadr fighters remove their weapons from Shiite shrine in move to end fighting

Friday, August 20th 2004, 6:17 am
By: News On 6

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) _ Militiamen loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Friday removed weapons from the revered Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf in a step aimed at ending the 2-week-old uprising centered on the holy site.

Al-Sadr's followers remained in control of the walled shrine compound, but kept their guns outside. Some of the same fighters who had earlier been in the shrine with weapons were still there, but now unarmed and mingling with civilians.

The firebrand cleric agreed to take a further step and surrender the shrine, which his Mahdi Army militia has used as a stronghold and refuge. Al-Sadr aides were working out the handover of control over the shrine to Iraq's highest Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

Turning the shrine over would likely mean an end to al-Sadr's revolt for the time being _ though it would not necessarily mean the dismantling of his militia, a demand he has so far rejected.

Confusion was created when an Interior Ministry spokesman, Sabah Kadhim, said Friday evening that police had entered the shrine and arrested 400 armed militants without incident.

However, an Associated Press reporter and other journalists who were in the shrine throughout the day said no police entered and no arrests were made. In the evening, no Iraqi police or security forces were in the shrine.

Sporadic gunfire and occasional explosions were heard in the city Friday evening, but far less than previous nights.

The surprise moves to resolve the crisis came a day after Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, threatened to storm the shrine, a move certain to cause bloodshed and infuriate Shiites across Iraq. On Thursday and overnight, U.S. warplanes bombed militia positions in Najaf in fighting that killed 77 people and wounded 70 others.

But with Najaf on Friday at its quietest in weeks, Allawi backed off his threats, saying a peaceful resolution was possible. And his national security adviser said the government wanted al-Sadr to join the political process.

``We are not going to attack the mosque, we are not going to attack Muqtada al-Sadr and the mosque, evidently we are not going to do this,'' Allawi told BBC radio Friday. ``The olive branch is still extended, he can take advantage of the olive branch.''

By nightfall, many armed al-Sadr militiamen were still around the shrine, circulating in the Old City district. Militiamen and other followers were also inside the shrine _ but unarmed. As gunmen entered, they left their weapons with comrades outside, then reclaimed them as they exited.

The AP reporter at the site saw no weapons in the shrine. It was not known whether any weapons were hidden inside, though militant leaders denied there were.

Allawi's government wants al-Sadr and his followers incorporated into the political process, Iraqi National Security adviser Mouaffaq al-Rubaie said. He told CNN that al-Sadr was not a terrorist and did not pose a strategic threat to Iraq like al-Qaida and other extremists did.

``The political process and democracy in Iraq is so accommodating that it can and will accommodate even the most extremist group, including Muqtada al-Sadr,'' he said.

Asked about an arrest warrant against al-Sadr issued earlier this year by an Iraqi judge _ before Allawi's government came to power _ al-Rubaie said he was not aware of any outstanding warrant, though he added, ``if he (al-Sadr) has been accused of any criminal act he should stand trial.''

U.S. occupation authorities announced in April the warrant against al-Sadr on charges of killing a rival cleric a year earlier _ and the announcement helped spark the Mahdi Army's first uprising, which was only quelled two months later with a series of truces.

The sanctity of the shrine had made uprooting al-Sadr's fighters a daunting task since the truces broke down and fighting erupted Aug. 5. U.S. forces had ruled out an American assault on the site and had faced tough fighting in a vast cemetery nearby from which militiamen fired on American and Iraqi troops.

Handing over the shrine to al-Sistani's religious authorities appeared to be a face-saving way to emerge from the standoff for al-Sadr, who opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq and often sharply criticizes the pro-U.S. interim government.

``We don't want to appease the government. ... We want to appease the Iraqi people,'' an aide to al-Sadr, Ahmed al-Shaibany, said earlier Friday as he headed to al-Sistani's office in the city to discuss handing over the keys.

An aide to al-Sistani, who has been undergoing medical treatment in London, said al-Sistani agreed but that details of a transfer still needed to be worked out.

``If they want to hand over the keys to the Shiite religious leadership, then the religious leadership will welcome this in order to defuse the crisis,'' Sheik Hamed Khafaf said.

In a sermon read on his behalf in the nearby Kufa Mosque, al-Sadr said he wanted the religious authorities to take control of the Old City from his Mahdi Army, though he also called on all Muslims to rise up if the shrine is attacked.

``If you see the dome of the holy Imam Ali Shrine shelled, don't be lax in resisting the occupier in your countries,'' he said.

The violence in Najaf between the insurgents and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force has angered many in Iraq's Shiite majority and proven a major challenge to Allawi's fledgling interim government as it tries to build credibility and prove it is not a U.S. puppet.

In Baghdad, troops from the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division pulled out of the Sadr City slum, scene of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and supporters of the rebel cleric the day before, when five fighters and five civilians were killed.

In Fallujah, west of the capital, U.S. warplanes launched two airstrikes Friday on the troubled Iraqi city, considered a hotbed of Sunni Muslim insurgents. Two people were killed and six injured in the first attack just after midnight, said Dia'a al-Jumeili, a doctor at Fallujah's main hospital. The other strike, which hit an open field, wounded three people.

Elsewhere in Iraq, militants attacked oil facilities in the north and south and fired mortars at U.S. Embassy offices in the capital, injuring one American.

An aide to al-Sadr said kidnappers have promised to release a U.S. journalist abducted in the southern city of Nasiriyah on Aug. 13.

The kidnappers, calling themselves the Martyrs Brigade, threatened a day earlier to kill New York journalist Micah Garen within 48 hours. But al-Sadr aide Sheik Aws al-Khafaji said he spoke with the militants, who told him they would release Garen later Friday.

Garen appeared in a video aired on Al-Jazeera later Friday, saying that his captors were treating him well.

``I am an American journalist in Iraq and I've been asked to deliver a message,'' he said. ``I am in captivity and being treated well.''

Meanwhile, insurgents set off a roadside bomb that killed an American soldier and wounded two others in the city of Samarra, northwest of Baghdad, the military said.

The military also announced that two U.S. Marines were killed in action on Wednesday and Thursday in Iraq's volatile western province of Anbar.

As of Thursday, 947 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.