U.S. and Iraqi cleric reach tentative deal

Al-Sadr would relinquish Najaf control

Americans to pull back in holy city

Crisis In Iraq

May 28, 2004|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAJAF, Iraq - U.S. officials embraced a peace plan offered by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, raising hopes yesterday for an end to weeks of fighting between his militia and U.S. troops that has left hundreds dead and damaged Islamic shrines.

Al-Sadr, whose al-Mahdi Army seized control of key parts of Najaf last month, unveiled Wednesday a four-point proposal brokered by moderate Shiite leaders that calls for him to relinquish control of government buildings and send some of his armed followers home.

In return, U.S. forces would pull back to a few small bases in Najaf and the neighboring city of Kufa, and would be replaced over time by Iraqi police.

Decisions about the future of the militia and whether al-Sadr would have to surrender to face criminal charges in the murder of a rival cleric would be made later by Shiite Muslim leaders, not by the United States.

"This is happy news to save the blood of our people and a victory for the forces of democracy," said Mouwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, who helped draft the plan.

The tentative peace deal represents a significant compromise for the United States, which amassed 2,000 troops outside Najaf in April with the stated objective of "killing or capturing" al-Sadr and "crushing" his militia.

If accepted, the deal would allow al-Sadr to remain free in Najaf for the time being and clear the way for him to transform his militia into a legitimate political party.

The offer came with some behind-the-scenes nudging by Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, a widely respected Najaf cleric who has been increasingly alarmed as fighting crept closer to the city center.

The gold-domed Imam Ali shrine, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, suffered minor damage this week from errant projectiles. Sistani, a reclusive religious leader who lives near the shrine, has urged U.S. forces and al-Sadr's militia to leave Najaf.

`A positive first step'

U.S. officials expressed cautious optimism about the proposal.

"It's a positive first step," said Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, during a briefing in Baghdad. "We applaud the Iraqi leaders who have stepped forward and tried to work this out among themselves."

In response to the proposal, U.S. troops agreed to suspend offensive operations in Najaf. But military officials warned that no final agreement has been reached. Previous attempts to reach a truce in Najaf have failed.

Beleaguered residents expressed hope that the peace agreement would stick.

"There has been so much suffering and so many civilians killed," said Dhurgham Ahmed, a clerk at a nearly vacant hotel a block from the shrine. "We need a peaceful resolution. If the bombing and shooting continue, people are going to leave the city."

Quiet in Najaf

After weeks of nightly gunbattles, an uneasy calm gripped mostly empty streets yesterday as residents awaited word about whether a peace deal had been struck. Shops, many scorched and bullet-riddled, remained shuttered. The cemetery where some of the fiercest battles took place remained quiet, though large parts of its wall lay in rubble.

Despite talk of an impending withdrawal, U.S. forces and members of the Mahdi Army were visible throughout Najaf and Kufa, as they have been for weeks.

Along the main corridor connecting the towns, militiamen roamed openly with rocket-propelled grenade launchers on their shoulders and stood watch with AK-47s in narrow alleys. Just 200 yards away, U.S. troops set up a checkpoint at a traffic circle, stopping and searching cars.

But Iraqi officials noted that as of early evening, no fighting or shooting had occurred in Najaf.

Several members of the Iraqi Governing Council came to Najaf yesterday to offer support.

One of them, Salama Khafaji, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt as she traveled back to Baghdad. At least three bodyguards were killed when gunmen attacked her car, the Associated Press reported. Khafaji, one of only three women on the 25-member council, replaced Aqila Hashimi, who was assassinated in September.

Seeking stability

The Najaf compromise reflects growing pressure on the United States by Shiite leaders, including al-Sistani, to end the standoff, and a desire to bring political stability as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to hand over authority to an interim Iraqi government June 30.

Al-Sadr agreed to send home members of the Mahdi Army who do not live in Najaf, to disband the private religious court he set up to arrest and prosecute citizens, and to allow Iraqi police to regain control of the cities.

The Los Angles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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