Peace takes hold in battered Najaf

Al-Sadr fighters withdraw from mosque and city

U.S. troops let militants pass

Al-Sistani clerics occupy shrine

battle seems over

Al-Sadr fighters keep weapons, pull out of mosque

August 28, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood and Edmund Sanders | Ken Ellingwood and Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

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

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

Al-Sadr agreed early yesterday to order his armed followers to leave the mosque and put down their weapons as part of an agreement brokered by al-Sistani to end weeks of combat in Najaf's normally tranquil Old City district.

Tens of thousands of worshipers poured through the mosque complex for prayers yesterday morning as the deal came together. Al-Sistani had summoned the faithful from around Iraq to come to Najaf to march in support of peace.

Despite the exit of fighters from the shrine, an al-Sadr spokesman said the standoff's ending amounted to a victory because al-Sadr had agreed to remove his men under a religious order from al-Sistani - not as a result of pressure from the Americans and the interim Iraqi government.

The agreement, accepted by the Allawi government, also appears to allow al-Sadr's militia to remain armed and for the cleric to remain free, despite earlier U.S. and Iraqi vows to arrest him on suspicion of being involved in the killing of a rival cleric last year.

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

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

In a document released by al-Sistani's office detailing the terms, the elder cleric, who had just returned to Najaf on Thursday after three weeks of medical treatment in Britain for a heart condition, demanded the departure of al-Sadr's fighters and "foreign forces" from Najaf and neighboring Kufa, an al-Sadr stronghold.

Al-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 during the fighting, which included mortar strikes by al-Sadr's men and aerial bombing and tank fire by U.S. forces.

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

During three weeks of fighting, al-Sadr's forces took refuge in the sacred mosque compound. U.S. and Iraqi forces moved closer as time elapsed. But they never made a final push, apparently because of concerns about the repercussions if the holy site were damaged or destroyed.

Getting al-Sadr's militiamen out of the shrine offers some breathing room for the two-month-old Allawi government and seems certain to enhance the standing of the 73-year-old al-Sistani.

Left to be seen, however, is whether the standoff will be the last confrontation between the rebel cleric's forces and the government and what role, if any, al-Sadr will play in Iraqi electoral politics.

During the three weeks of battles, U.S. officials say they killed more than 500 of al-Sadr's militiamen, a figure that al-Sadr's side says is greatly exaggerated. Eleven U.S. troops were killed and more than 100 were wounded.

By late afternoon, two U.S. tanks remained stationed along the main avenue into the Old City. But quickly taking the place of the American troops was a growing contingent of Iraqi police officers who poured into the Old City in SUVs and pickup trucks, the barrels of their automatic weapons poking out like quills.

With the halt in fighting, the full scope of damage became clear along the streets and narrow alleys of Najaf's Old City, which serves as the commercial center for the throngs of Shiite pilgrims who make their way each year to the twin-minaret shrine that is believed to have been erected in the eighth century.

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

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